Journey to the end of the river, with La Condamine

It is now official: according to an article recently published in Le Figaro, the highest point on Earth is… Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador. Although there are dozens – if not hundreds – of peaks that are considerably taller than Chimborazo when measured as elevations above sea level, the top of the Ecuadorian volcano is the point furthest away from the centre of the Earth (outranking Mount Everest by some 1,800 metres) due to the fact that our planet is not a perfect sphere: rotation has slightly flattened it at the poles and made it bulge at the Equator.

Although the exact measurement of Chimborazo (‘to the nearest centimetre’, says Le Figaro) was only made possible by state-of-the-art technology, the fact that our terrestrial globe is flatter at the extremities and plumper in the middle did not exactly come as news. Newton had figured it out mathematically long ago, and the experimental evidence was provided by the twin expeditions of Maupertuis in Lapland and of La Condamine in modern-day Ecuador (then Peru) from the mid-1730s to the mid-1740s.

Reading the story about Mount Chimborazo, and with one thing leading to another, I felt compelled to look up works by Charles Marie de La Condamine on the Internet, and I started reading his Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale […] lue à l’assemblée publique de l’Académie des Sciences le 28 avril 1745 on For, as well as measuring his arc of meridian in Ecuador in order to settle the question of the shape of the Earth once and for all, La Condamine was also the first scientist to explore, describe and map the Amazon basin and its intricate network of tributaries in detail. His Relation abrégée was published in 1745, the same year he came back to Paris (via Amsterdam, as he sailed back to Europe from the Dutch colony of Suriname), having left the port of La Rochelle bound for the Americas ten years before, in 1735.


‘Carte du cours du Maragnon ou de la Grande Rivière des Amazones’, in Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale, by Charles Marie de La Condamine (Paris, chez la veuve Pissot, 1745). Image gallica/BnF.

The sense of immediacy afforded by La Condamine’s account of his journey, committed to the page so soon after its completion, is enhanced by the quality of the reading experience one gets thanks to the remarkable clarity of the scans of the first edition of the book (Paris, Chez la veuve Pissot, 1745) on Perusing the original edition, the reader feels transported back in time and space into a new world, huge swathes of which were then still largely unknown to Europeans, a world where the existence of a tribe of real-life Amazons could not be entirely dismissed (even though La Condamine himself was highly sceptical) and where echoes of stories about a land of gold – El Dorado – still resonated.

The book contains descriptions of many strange and mysterious animals – including the coati and the manatee – as well as what is quite possibly the first description of rubber by a European (La Condamine introduced the substance to Europe): ‘la résine appelée Cahuchu (prononcez Cahout-chou) […] est aussi fort commune sur les bords du Marañon […] Quand elle est fraîche, on lui donne avec des moules la forme qu’on veut; elle est impénétrable à la pluie, mais ce qui la rend plus remarquable, c’est sa grande élasticité. On en fait des bouteilles qui ne sont pas fragiles, des bottes […]’ (p.78-79).

La Condamine’s account of the character of the native Americans he encountered would undoubtedly make it quite difficult for him to find a publisher were he to submit his manuscript today, and would probably get him expelled from most universities’ Anthropology departments: ‘j’ai cru reconnaître dans tous [les Indiens Américains] un même fond de caractère. L’insensibilité en fait la base. […] Elle naît sans doute du petit nombre de leurs idées […] pusillanimes et poltrons à l’excès si l’ivresse ne les transporte pas […] ennemis du travail […] incapables de prévoyance et de réflexion […] ils passent leur vie sans penser, et ils vieillissent sans sortir de l’enfance dont ils conservent tous les défauts’ (p.52-53).

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Having said that, he is not unaware of his own biases as an external observer: describing how Indians inhale a crushed plant’s powder as snuff through a Y-shaped reed that they insert into their nostrils, he writes ‘cette opération […] leur fait faire une grimace fort ridicule aux yeux d’un Européen, qui veut tout rapporter à ses usages’ (p.73-74).

And his own commentary on what he perceives as the unenviable condition of native American women (offered as a theory concerning the possible origin of the Amazons) reveals his humane and compassionate side: ‘Je me contenterais de faire remarquer qui si jamais il y a pu avoir des Amazones dans le monde, c’est en Amérique, où la vie errante des femmes qui suivent souvent leurs maris à la guerre, et qui n’en sont pas plus heureuses dans leur domestique, a dû leur faire naître l’idée et leur fournir des occasions fréquentes de se dérober au joug de leurs tyrans, en cherchant à se faire un établisssement où elles pussent vivre dans l’indépendance, et du moins n’être pas réduites à la condition d’esclaves et de bêtes de somme. Une pareille résolution prise et exécutée n’aurait rien de plus extraordinaire ni de plus difficile que tout ce qui arrive tous les jours dans toutes les colonies européennes d’Amérique, où il n’est que trop ordinaire que des esclaves maltraités ou mécontents fuient par troupes dans les bois, et quelquefois seuls’ (p.110-111).

Although a bit dry (ironically) when describing the drainage basin of the Amazon river, the sheer variety of the observations and reflections contained in this slim volume and the author’s superb style make it a compelling and rejuvenating read, a first-hand account of an endlessly fascinating world, full of mysteries and wonders, by one of the great explorers and scientists of his time.

– Georges Pilard


Newtonianism in the French Enlightenment

Rob Iliffe is Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex. He has written the Very Short Introduction to Newton and directs the online Newton Project. On 28 February 2015 he gave a fascinating talk at the ‘Voltaire and the Newtonian Revolution’ conference that explored the fate and legacy of Newton’s scientific views in eighteenth-century France of which this is a brief summary.


Soon after Newton had published his initial work on the heterogeneity of white light (in 1672), he became embroiled in a series of disputes about the truth of his theory, and about the facts on which it was based. Edme Mariotte’s failure to reproduce aspects of Newton’s ‘crucial experiment’ in 1681 influenced the negative opinion of Newton’s work by many French physicists, although there was increased interest in his work at the Académie des Sciences following the publication of his Optice in 1706. There was also opposition to the physical theories and epistemological claims expressed in his Principia Mathematica, and many commentators continued to prefer the Cartesian doctrine of tourbillons to the notion of ‘attraction’ that underlay Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A delegation of French natural philosophers visited England in 1715 and were treated to a number of experiments that confirmed Newton’s theories. However, it was Newton’s death in the spring of 1727, and Bernard de Fontenelle’s influential Eloge that followed, that triggered a serious spurt of interest in his work. Two men, Voltaire and Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis wrote popular works in the early 1730s that brought the nature and revolutionary scope of Newton’s ideas to a much larger audience. Yet it was not until the results of a French scientific expedition to Lapland were announced in 1737 that the public really began to switch allegiance to the Newtonian worldview. This excursion, led by Maupertuis, left France in 1736 to measure the length of a degree, one year after another voyage had set out to perform similar cartographic measurements in Peru (now Ecuador). The results from the Finnish expedition, and indications from the ill-fated trip to Peru, showed that the earth was flattened at the poles (as Newton had argued), and was not a prolate spheroid as many Cartesians had claimed.

Newtonianism was duly adopted and made the central plank of their paean to Enlightenment by men such as Voltaire and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert. Newton’s attacks on arbitrary and fictitous ‘hypotheses’ and ‘systems’ were reconfigured to serve in the general assault on the ‘infamy’ of persecution and superstition. There were some problems with the approach, firstly because Newtonianism could be used (as the British largely did) to defend the idea of an intelligent Creator God, and secondly because Newton himself was clearly both devout and a serious student of theology. While the latter could be explained away as the result of senility or dilettantism, there was always the danger that Newton himself could be deified as the founder of Reason. This possibility was explored in the majestic designs for a Cenotaph to Newton created by Etienne-Louis Boullée in the mid-1780s, and in the early plans for a ‘Church of Newton’ described by Henri de Saint-Simon at the start of the following century.

– Rob Iliffe, Director of the Newton Project

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Who’s got the last laugh now?


Maupertuis by Robert Levrac-Tournières and Jean Daullé, 1741 (Paris, BnF)

One of the bitterest and most famous of the many quarrels that Voltaire was involved in during his long life was the one that pitted him against Maupertuis from 1752 onwards. The quarrel started while both men were living at Frederick the Great’s court, Maupertuis as the president of the Académie de Berlin and Voltaire as Frederick’s personal guest.

The details of the dispute itself are too intricate to be exposed here but can be found in Voltaire’s Histoire du docteur Akakia, a collection of texts which were both a response to and a continuation of this quarrel. The dispute eventually saw the king of Prussia himself intervene on behalf of the president of his Académie, and damaged almost irreparably the friendship between Voltaire and his crowned admirer. The quarrel also seriously damaged Maupertuis’s reputation as a scientist, as Voltaire conducted a relentless campaign of denigration aimed at both his enemy’s character and writings, which continued well after his foe’s demise in 1759.

The wit and sarcasm deployed by Voltaire against Maupertuis overshadowed the latter’s undeniable contribution to the scientific advances of his century and the visionary aspect of some of his writings. Among Voltaire’s recurring targets for mockery is the idea proposed by the scientist that drilling a hole to the centre of the Earth would be of enormous interest to science.[1] For all of Voltaire’s scathing gibes at what he repeatedly described as the fanciful notions of a madman, modern science has now vindicated the much-maligned Maupertuis, not his formidable detractor, as can be seen in an article published in The New Scientist. Similarly, the hypothesis that some celestial bodies might contain diamonds which the scientist formulated in his Œuvres and which Voltaire dutifully ridiculed does not sound that far-fetched to modern-day astronomers.

No doubt Maupertuis would have welcomed these new developments, more than two and a half centuries after his scientific intuitions were so mercilessly and relentlessly mocked by Voltaire.

Georges Pilard

[1] in his Œuvres de M. de Maupertuis (1752).