Maybe you thought the world was round? That's almost right. It is a little flatter at the poles than it is around the equator. Newton had predicted this, and in the early 1700s testing this particular prediction turned into a kind proxy for Newton's theories in general.
Things looked bad for Newtonianism when, in 1718, Jacques Cassini announced that his measurements in France showed that the earth was elongated, or prolate, rather than flattened, or oblate. Maupertuis was a champion of Newton, and in 1736 he led an expedition to Lapland to measure the length of a degree of latitude near the poles. That data, when combined with the measurements by an expedition to Peru to measure the degree near the equator, showed that Cassini had erred, Newton was right, and the earth is flatter at the poles than it is around the equator. Propelled by this triumph, and a good deal of self promotion, Maupertuis became a scientific superstar.
Over the next few years, Maupertuis' services came into heavy demand. The French King wanted him to work in Paris, but at the same time, Frederick the Second of Prussia, Frederick the Great, wanted him to go to Berlin to run his new Academy. As part of his recruitment campaign, Frederick invited Maupertuis to accompany him to watch one of his many battles in his wars against the Austrians, and the stage was set for what must be the World's Worst Job Interview.
Details abound, but most of them are of doubtful accuracy. In general, the story goes something like this. Maupertuis joined Frederick at Mollwitz to watch a battle that Frederick expected to win decisively. Things didn't go quite as Frederick had planned, and in the confusion of battle, Maupertuis got lost. He turned up, robbed, beaten and naked, among the Austrians. After a series of misadventures, he turned up in Vienna at the court of Maria Theresa, who identified him as a nobleman and threw a number of parties in his honor before sending him back to Berlin. The next time a job interview isn't going quite as well as you hoped it would, you can console yourself; at least they probably won't steal your clothes and send you naked to Vienna like they did Maupertuis.
Eventually, Maupertuis did take the job in Berlin and enjoyed many fruitful years there. Towards the end of his career, though, he returned to France on family business and was stuck there when war broke out (yet again) between Prussia and France. He spent his last days trying to get permission to return to Prussia, or permission for his family to join him in France, but it never came.
Maupertuis was from Saint-Malo, on the French coast along the English Channel. His family had recently been elevated to the nobility because of his seagoing father's success as a privateer (read "pirate"). Thus he was privileged to receive an excellent education. He managed to avoid a career at sea, and to stay out of the commercial world, and instead moved into the high society of the French salons, where beat the heart of the Enlightenment.
All this, and much more is in the Mary Terrall's excellent biography, The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment. Mary Terrall is very well known in the History community, and comes to the history of science from that community rather than from among the mathematicians and scientists. Readers of these pages may be more familiar with history written by scientists rather than that written by historians. A scientist would perhaps have dwelt more on the technical content of Maupertuis' Principle of Least Action, rather than on its philosophical aspects. We would have read more about the science that was being done at the Berlin Academy under Maupertuis' leadership than about how he invented the role of Administrator for a scientific research institute. In short, the book would read more like an entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography than an excellent work by one of the nation's leading historians of science.
The Man Who Flattened the Earth is a fascinating and well-written account of a colorful scientist, scholar and administrator, one of the foremost figures of the European Enlightenment. It shows how a role was constructed for science and mathematics, and how that role included philosophy, administration and politics, much as it does today. It is an excellent book for the historically inclined mathematician.
Ed Sandifer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Professor of Mathematics at Western Connecticut State University. He is an avid runner and has completed the Boston Marathon 31 times. Rumors persist that he lives in his attic with his collection of books by and about Leonhard Euler.