François Arago: the most interesting physicist in the world!

When he was seven years old, he tried to stab a Spanish solider with a lance
When he was eighteen, he talked a friend out of assassinating Napoleon
He once angered an archbishop so much that the holy man punched him in the face
He has negotiated with bandits, been chased by a mob, broken out of prison
He is:
François Arago, the most interesting physicist in the world

If you asked to describe what a “typical” physicist looks and acts like, what would you say? The picture that most people would paint wouldn’t be terribly flattering, and would conform to rather negative stereotypes.  Studies have been done in which children are asked to draw a scientist, and the results are quite uniformly of the “mad scientist” variety.  Shows like “The Big Bang Theory” on television typically depict physicists* as socially inept, unathletic, genuinely unworldly individuals, conforming to stereotypes that I’ve personally been familiar with since I was very young.

Real physicists, however, are much more varied and interesting than the popular image suggests.  For example, I myself jump out of airplanes as a regular hobby, and my friends and colleagues have an incredibly diverse spectrum of backgrounds, personalities and interests.

One physicist, however, blows away the stereotypes more than any other I’ve encountered.  As the preamble above suggests, the French physicist François Arago (1786-1853) lived a lifetime’s worth of danger, adventure and intrigue in just his first 23 years of life — and he would go on to make crucial discoveries in optical science as well as become an important politician of his time.  In the course of some recent research, I happened across Arago’s autobiography of his early years, and the story it tells is remarkable and worth recounting, at least in part.  Arago’s biography was unpublished during his lifetime; in fact, it is unclear exactly when he wrote it or who the intended audience was.  What is clear, however, is that François Arago was a badass, and his story should be “exhibit A” whenever someone dredges up tired stereotypes about the demeanor and toughness of scientific persons.

Arago was born in 1786, entering the world on the verge of one of the most tumultuous periods in French history.  Only three years later, the French Revolution would begin, culminating in the bloody Reign of Terror of 1793-1794.  Such would be Arago’s later reputation, that he even needed to comment on his role in said revolution:

I was born on the 26th of February, 1786, in the commune of Estagel, an ancient province of Roussillon (department of the Eastern Pyrenees).  My father, a licentiate in law, had some little property in arable land, in vineyards, and in plantations of olive-trees, the income from which supported his numerous family.

I was thus three years old in 1789, four years old in 1790, five years in 1791, six years in 1792, and seven years old in 1793, &c.

The reader has now himself the means of judging whether, as has been said, and even stated in print, I had a hand in the excesses of our first revolution.

Arago was raised in relatively unremarkable circumstances; nevertheless, from a very early age he demonstrated a fiery precociousness that would foreshadow his later exploits. The onset of the French Revolution had led to regional instability, in part due to the ideological conflict of the newly formed republic with the surrounding monarchies.  France eventually ended up at war with much of Europe, in what are known as the French Revolutionary Wars.  When Spain invaded France in 1793, Arago’s childhood home ended up being a transit point for French forces, and young Arago was eager to get involved:

Estagel was a halting-place for a portion of the troops who, coming from the interior, either went on to Perpignan, or repaired direct to the army of the Pyrenees.  My parents’ house was therefore constantly full of officers and soldiers.  This, joined to the lively excitement which the Spanish invasion had produced within me, inspired me with such decided military tastes, that my family was obliged to have me narrowly watched to prevent my joining by stealth the soldiers who left Estagel.  It often happened that they caught me at a league’s distance from the village, already on my way with the troops.

On one occasion these warlike tastes had nearly cost me dear.  It was the night of the battle of Peires-Tortes.  The Spanish troops in their retreat had partly mistaken their road.  I was in the square of the village before daybreak: I saw a brigadier and five troopers come up, who, at the sight of the tree of liberty, called out, “Somos perdidos!” ["We're lost!"] I ran immediately to the house to arm myself with a lance which had been left there by a soldier of the levée en masse, and placing myself in ambush at the corner of a street, I struck with a blow of this weapon the brigadier placed at the head of the party.  The wound was not dangerous: a cut of the sabre, however, was descending to punish my hardihood, when some countrymen came to my aid, and, armed with forks, overturned the five cavaliers from their saddles, and made them prisoners.  I was then seven years old.**

With such an auspicious start, one would think that Arago inevitably became a military man of some sort.  This was not to be the case, but nevertheless conflicts between Spain and France would play a major role in his life, as we will see.

Walking one day on the city ramparts, the Young Arago met an officer of engineers who was overseeing repairs.  Arago was intrigued by the man, and learned that he could pursue a similar career at the Polytechnic School, which could only be entered by passing a difficult mathematical examination.  From that point onward, Arago sought out and studied intently the works of the leading mathematical and physical minds of the day.  When exam time came, he was more than prepared, in spite of the hostility of the examiner:

At last the moment of examination arrived, and I went to Toulouse in company with a candidate who had studied at the public college.  It was the first time that pupils from Perpignan had appeared in the competition.  My intimidated comrade was completely discomfited.  When I repaired after him to the board, a very singular conversation took place between M. Monge (the examiner) and me.

“If you are going to answer like your comrade, it is useless for me to question you.”

“Sir, my comrade knows much more than he has shown; I hope I shall be more fortunate than he; but what you have just said to me might well intimidate me and deprive me of all my powers.”

“Timidity is always the excuse of the ignorant; it is to save you from the shame of a defeat that I make you the proposal of not examining you.”

“I know of no greater shame than that which you now inflict upon me.  Will you be so good as to question me? it is your duty.”

“You carry yourself very high, sir! We shall see presently whether this be a legitimate pride.”

“Proceed, sir; I wait for you.”

Arago not only passed the exam, but mastered it, providing multiple techniques for solving questions put to him.  He ended up being at the top of the list of entering candidates at the Polytechnic at the end of 1803, and excelled at his studies.

The political turmoil of France in that era left nothing untouched, however; even secure in a school of higher learning, Arago would face unexpected peril.  In 1804, Napoleon came to power, and he sent a general to receive an oath of obedience from the students of the Polytechnic.  Most, on hearing their name, defiantly answered “Present!” instead of “I swear it!”; one student, by the name of Brissot, flatly refused to take the oath.  The general ordered the student arrested by his fellow classmates but they, including Arago, refused to lay hands upon him. Brissot was nevertheless expelled the next day.  When he reappeared in Arago’s life, he had a deadly plan in mind:

I had entirely lost sight of him for several months, when he came to pay me a visit at the Observatory, and placed me in the most delicate, the most terrible, position that an honest man ever found himself in.

“I have not seen you,” he said to me, “because since leaving the school I have practised daily firing with a pistol; I have now acquired a skill beyond the common, and I am about to employ it in ridding France of the tyrant who has confiscated all her liberties.  Carrousel, close to the place by which Napoleon, on coming out from the court, will pass to review the cavalry; from the humble window of my apartment will the ball be fired which will go through his head.”

I leave it to be imagined with what despair I received this confidence.  I made every imaginable effort to deter Brissot from his sinister project: I remarked how all those who had rushed on enterprises of this nature had been branded in history by the odious title of assassin.  Nothing succeeded in shaking his fatal resolution; I only obtained from him a promise on his honour that the execution of it should be postponed for a time, and I put myself in quest of means for rendering it abortive.

Contacting the authorities was out of the question, and Brissot’s mother had resigned herself to the inevitability of her son’s martyrdom.

It was from myself that I must henceforth draw all my resources.  I had remarked that Brissot was addicted to the composition of romances and pieces of poetry.  I encouraged this passion, and every Sunday, above all, when I knew that there would be a review, I went to fetch him, and drew him into the country, in the environs of Paris.  I listened then complacently to the reading of those chapters of his romance which he had composed during the week.

The first excursions frightened me a little, for armed with his pistols, Brissot seized every occasion of showing his great skill; and I reflected that this circumstance would lead to my being considered as his accomplice, if he ever carried out his project.  At least, his pretensions to literary fame, which I flattered to the utmost, the hopes (though I had none myself) which I led him to conceive of the success of an attachment of which he had confided the secret to me, made him receive with attention the reflections which I constantly made to him on his enterprise.  He determined on making a journey beyond the seas, and thus relieved me from the most serious anxiety which I have experienced in all my life.

This statement of “most serious anxiety” will seem ironic in light of his later life events!
Though he avoided being involved in an assassination, another unfortunate death would  change the course of Arago’s career.  In 1795, the French government had founded the Bureau des Longitudes, which was tasked with improving nautical navigation, among other things.  One of the founding members, Pierre Méchain, had been sent to Spain to perform measurements of the meridian arc between Barcelona and the island of Formentera — essentially, he was taking precise measurements of the curvature of the Earth.  However, he died there of yellow fever in late 1804.  Méchain’s son, who had been Secretary at the Paris Observatory (also connected with the Bureau), immediately resigned, leaving a job opening.  Arago had sufficiently impressed the noteworthy of the Polytechnic that he was offered the job.  He was hesitant to do so — his heart was still set on training to be a member of the French Artillery — but accepted the position on condition  that he would be able to reenter school if he so desired.

Arago took up work with Jean-Baptiste Biot, a more senior researcher, and the two performed investigations on the optical properties of gases.  While this work was ongoing, they grew interested in continuing the incomplete longitude work of Méchain.  The pair made a proposal to the Bureau, it was accepted, and in 1806 they headed off to Spain to take measurements.

Their work involved measurements from mountaintop to distant mountaintop, with signal lights allowing triangulation between these points.  Arago spent much time wandering in remote mountainous, even lawless, regions of Spain, and in the process narrowly escaped more than one life-or-death scrape.  For instance:

One day, as a recreation, I thought I could go, with a fellow-countryman, to the fair at Murviedro, the ancient Saguntum, which they told me was very curious.  I met in the town the daughter of a Frenchman resident at Valencia, Madlle. B—-.  All the hotels were crowded; Madlle. B—- invited us to take some refreshments at her grandmother’s; we accepted; but on leaving the house she informed us that our visit had not been to the taste of her betrothed, and that we must be prepared for some sort of attack on his part: we went directly to an armourer’s, bought some pistols, and commenced our return to Valencia.

On our way I said to the calezero (driver), a man whom I had employed for a long time, and who was much devoted to me: –

“Isidro, I have some reason to believe that we shall be stopped; I warn you of it, so that you may not be surprised at the shots which will be fired from the caleza (vehicle).”

Isidro, seated on the shaft, according to the custom of the country, answered: –

“Your pistols are completely useless, gentlemen; leave me to act; one cry will be enough; my mule will rid us of two, three, or even four men.”

Scarcely one minute had elapsed after the calezero had uttered these words, when two men presented themselves before the mule and seized her by the nostrils.  At the same instant a formidable cry, which we never be effaced from my remembrance, — the cry of Capitana! — was uttered by Isidro.  The mule reared up almost vertically, raising up one of the men, came down again, and set off at a rapid gallop.  The jolt which the carriage made led us to understand too well what had just occurred.  A long silence succeeded this incident; it was only interrupted by these words of the calezero, “Do you not think, gentleman, that my mule is worth more than any pistols?”

The next day the captain-general, Don Domingo Izquierdo, related to me that a man had been found crushed on the road to Murviedro.  I gave him an account of the prowess of Isidro’s mule, and no more was said.

The mountainous regions were filled with bandits, and a visiting French scientist, laden with equipment, would be a potential target.  A curious twist of fate, and a chance encounter, helped protect Arago immensely from this danger:

During my stay on a mountain near Cullera, to the north of the mouth of the river Xucar, and to the south of the Abluféra, I once conceived the project of establishing a station on the high mountains which are in front of it.  I went to see them.  The alcaid of one of the neighbouring villages warned me of the danger to which I was about to expose myself.  “These mountains,” said he to me, “form the resort of a band of highway robbers.”  I asked for the national guard, as I had the power to do so.  My escort was supposed by the robbers to be an expedition directed against them, and they dispersed themselves at once over the rich plain which is watered by the Xucar.  On my return I found them engaged in combat with the authorities of Cullera.  Wounds had been given on both sides, and, if I recollect right, one alguazil was left dead on the plain.

The next morning I regained my station.  The following night was a horrible one; the rain fell in a deluge.  Towards night, there was knocking at my cabin door. To the question, “Who is there?” the answer was, “A custom-house guard, who asks of you a shelter for some hours.” My servant having opened the door to him, I saw a magnificent man enter, armed to the teeth.  He laid himself down on the earth, and went to sleep.  In the morning, as I was chatting with him at the door of my cabin, his eyes flashed on seeing two persons on the slope of the mountain, the alcaid of Cullera and his principal alguazil, who were coming to pay me a visit.  “Sir,” cried he, “nothing less than the gratitude which I owe to you, on account of the service which you have rendered to me this night, could prevent my seizing this occasion for ridding myself, by one shot of this carabine, of my most cruel enemy. Adieu, sir!” And he departed, springing from rock to rock as light as a gazelle.

On reaching the cabin, the alcaid and his alguazil recognised in the fugitive the chief of all the brigands in the country.

Some days afterwards, the weather having again become very bad, I received a second visit from the pretended custom-house guard, who went soundly to sleep in my cabin.  I saw that my servant, an old soldier, who had heard the recital of the deeds and behaviour of this man, was preparing to kill him.  I jumped down from my camp bed, and, seizing my servant by the throat,– “Are you mad?” said I to him; “are we to discharge the duties of police in this country?  Do you not see, moreover, that this would expose us to the resentment of all those who obey the orders of this redoubted chief?  And we should thus render it impossible for us to terminate our operations.”

Next morning, when the sun rose, I had a conversation with my guest, which I will try to reproduce faithfully.

“Your situation is perfectly known to me; I know that you are not a custom-house guard; I have learnt from certain information that you are the chief of the robbers of the country.  Tell me whether I have anything to fear from your confederates?”

“The idea of robbing you did occur to us; but we concluded that all your funds would be in the neighbouring towns; that you would carry no money to the summit of the mountains, where you would not know what to do with it, and that our expedition against you could have no fruitful result.  Moreover, we cannot pretend to be as strong as the King of Spain.  The King’s troops leave us quietly enough to exercise our industry; but on the day that we molested an envoy from the Emperor of the French, they would direct against us several regiments, and we should soon have to succumb.  Allow me to add, that the gratitude which I owe to you is your surest guarantee.”

Some days later, Arago was accosted by bandits on the road; when he identified himself, though, the bandits immediately departed.

There was more than one bandit chief, however, and the protection of one did not extend to the next.  On another occasion, Arago’s contingent ended up fleeing from armed robbers who were definitely planning to do them harm.  While wandering, lost, in the forest late at night, they spotted the light of a nearby cottage and managed to seek shelter from the bandits.  It turns out the family in the cottage were up late making black pudding, having killed a pig earlier in the day.  As Arago notes,

Had the pig lived one day more, or had there been no black puddings, I should certainly have been no longer in this world, and I should not have the opportunity to relate the story of the robbers of Oropeza.

In his encounter with the bandit chief, Arago showed evidence of his future skill as a politician; another opportunity arose when looking for cooperation from the residents near the measurement stations.

In order to succeed in our geodesic operations, to obtain the co-operation of the inhabitants of the villages near our stations, it was desirable for us to be recommended to the priests.  We went, therefore, — M. Lanusse, the French Vice-Consul, M. Biot, and I, — to pay a visit to the Archbishop of Valencia, to solicit his protection.  This archbishop, a man of very tall figure, was then chief of the Franciscans; his costume more than negligent, his grey robe, covered with tobacco, contrasted with the magnificence of the archiepiscopal palace.  He received us with kindness, and promised us all the recommendations we desired; but, at the moment of taking leave of him, the whole affair seemed to be spoiled. M. Lanusse and M. Biot went out of the reception room without kissing the hand of his grace, although he had presented it to each of them very graciously.  The archbishop indemnified himself on my poor person.  A movement, which was very near breaking my teeth, a gesture which I might justly call a blow of the fist, proved to me that the chief of the Franciscans, notwithstanding his vow of humility, had taken offence at the want of ceremony in my fellow visitors.  I was going to complain of the abrupt way in which he had treated me, but I had the necessities of our trigonometrical operations before my eyes, and I was silent.

Besides this, at the instant when the closed fist of the archbishop was applied to my lips, I was still thinking of the beautiful optical experiments which it would have been possible to make with the magnificent stone which ornamented his pastoral ring.  This idea, I must frankly declare, had preoccupied me during the whole of the visit.

The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya

There were, in fact, many other fascinating incidents that occurred to or near Arago during this part of his sojourn in Spain.  All of this was, however, somewhat of a “warm-up” to the real adventure, that began in 1808.  In late 1807, Napoleon sent an army into allied Spain’s territory to invade Portugal; by February of 1808 the Emperor decided to turn on his ally and ordered French troops to seize key Spanish fortresses, and turned Spain into an occupied country.  On the second of May 1808, the people of Madrid rose up against the French, resulting in a brutal crackdown on the third of May and triggering the Peninsular War between Spain, the United Kingdom and Portugal against France.

The newly-sparked rage of the Spanish did not bode well for the Frenchman sequestered at the top of a mountain, shining mysterious signal lights.

My station at Majorca, the Clop de Galazo, a very high mountain, was situated exactly over the port where Don Jayme el Conquistador disembarked when he went to deliver the Balearic Islands from the Moors.  The report spread itself through the population that I had established myself there in order to favour the arrival of the French army, and that every evening I made signals to it.  But these reports had nothing menacing until the moment of the arrival at Palma, the 27th of May, 1808, of an ordnance officer from Napoleon.  This officer was M. Berthémie; he carried to the Spanish squadron, at Mahon, the order to go in all haste to Toulon.  A general rising, which placed the life of this officer in danger, followed the news of his mission.  The Captain-General Vivés only saved his life by shutting him up in the strong castle of Belver.  Then they bethought themselves of the Frenchman established on the Clop de Galazo, and formed a popular expedition to go and seize him.

A friendly Spanish boat captain got to Arago first, and managed to bring Arago him down in disguise past the mob.  Arago’s mastery of languages helped him here, because he was able to pass himself off as a Majorcan perfectly.  When he reached the boat that was to bring him to safety in French-occupied Barcelona, however, another mob arrived.

“Do not be uneasy,” said [the captain] to me; “if they should penetrate into the vessel you can hide yourself in this trunk.” I made the attempt; but the chest which he showed me was so small that my legs were entirely outside, and the cover could not be shut down.

Arago had no choice but to request that he be imprisoned in the Castle of Bellver for his own protection.     Getting to the castle was no mean feat in itself, however:

At the moment of their crossing the harbour the populace perceived me, commenced a pursuit, and it was not without much difficulty that I reached Belver safe and sound.  I had only, indeed, received on my way one slight wound from a dagger in the thigh.  Prisoners have often been seen to run with all speed from their dungeon; I am the first, perhaps, to whom it has happened to do the reverse.  This took place on the 1st or 2nd of June, 1808.

Bellver Castle

Arago spent roughly two months in Bellver Castle.  The governor of the castle was kind enough to him, but the rest of the population of the island of Majorca, even former friends, had become decidedly and sometimes lethally hostile.  A Swiss garrison was brought in by the governor to replace the Spanish one, for fear of the prisoners’ safety.  Arago also learned that one of the holy monks in the town below had attempted to convince a Spanish soldier to poison Arago’s dinner!

One of Arago’s remaining friends, a M. Rodriguez, brought news periodicals for him to read during his stay.  It was from one of these articles that Arago read of his own execution:

Another journal contained an article bearing this title: “Relacion de la ahorcadura del señor Arago e del señor Berthemie,” — literally, “Account of the execution of M. Arago and M. Berthémie.” This account spoke of the two executed men in very different terms.  M. Berthemie was a Huguenot; he had been deaf to all exhortations; he had spit in the face of the ecclesiastic who was present, and even on the image of Christ.  As for me, I had conducted myself with much decency, and had allowed myself to be hung without giving rise to any scandal.  The writer also expressed his regret that a young astronomer had been so weak as to associate himself with treason, coming under the disguise of science to assist the entrance of the French army into a friendly kingdom.

Arago was able to read between the lines — with a fictional account of his execution being reported, the real thing was likely not far off.  He decided to make his escape; his friend Rodriguez arranged for sympathetic guards to allow Arago and friends (including M. Berthémie) to leave the castle, and further arranged for a fishing vessel to carry them to the city of Algiers, on the coast of Algeria in Africa.

At Algiers, Arago and colleagues made their way to the French consulate — but not before a brawl on the docks against a Spanish port official that refused to allow them to disembark.  At the consulate, Berthémie and Arago were given false passports and passage was booked for them on a vessel of the Algerian Regency heading to Marseilles.  They departed on the 13th of August, after a press-gang had rounded up enough locals to be sailors on the ship.  Among the cargo on the ship were gifts of lions and monkeys for the Emperor Napoleon, and passengers from both Europe and the Middle East.

On the way, the Regency vessel met up with a weaker American one, and Arago took the opportunity to extort some coffee, tea and sugar from its captain, as the expense of being labelled a pirate by said captain!  With some luxury items acquired, the rest of the trip to Marseilles seemed like it would be a pleasant and comfortable one — until the Regency ship was intercepted by a heavily-armed Spanish corsair.

The Spanish captain seized the Algierian vessel, on the grounds that it was violating a coalition blockade against all ports of France.  They were sailed to Rosas, Spain, and were imprisoned in a dismantled windmill there: in fact, they were only some 60 miles from Arago’s childhood home of Estagel at that point.

The Regency ship was heavily laden with treasure; the Spanish authorities were eager to claim its goods as their own, but needed a reasonable excuse to do so.  They decided that Arago must be the true proprietor of the ship, and furthermore a deserter from the Spanish army; the ship would then be seized as criminal property.  Arago was brought before a judge for interrogation, and undeniably was in a tough bind: he could be revealed as a Spanish deserter (likely sentenced to death) or expose himself as a Frenchman (and probably equally likely to be executed).  He solved the problem in a manner quite remarkable:

They stretched two cords between the mill and the shore, and a judge placed himself in front of me.  As the interrogatories were made from a good distance, the numerous audience which encircled us took a direct part in the questions and answers.  I will endeavour to re-produce this dialogue with all possible fidelity: –

“Who are you?”

“A poor roving merchant.”

“Whence do you come?”

“From a country where you certainly never were.”

“In a word, what country is it?”

I was afraid to answer, for the passports, steeped in vinegar, were in the hands of the judge-instructor, and I had forgotten whether I was from Schwekat or from Leoben.  Finally I answered  at all hazards:–

“I come from Schwekat.”

And this information happily was found to agree with that of the passport.

“You are as much from Schwekat as I am,” answered the judge.  “You are Spanish, and, moreover, a Spaniard from the kingdom of Valencia, as I perceive by your accent.”

“Would you punish me, sir, because nature has endowed me with the gift of languages? I learn with facility the dialects of those countries through which I pass in the exercise of my trade; I have learnt, for example, the dialect of Iviza.”

“Very well, you shall be taken at your word.  I see here a soldier from Iviza; you shall hold a conversation with him.”

“I consent; I will even sing the goat song.”

Each of the verses of this song (if verses they be) terminates by an imitation of the bleating of the goat.

I commenced at once, with an audacity at which I really feel astonished, to chant this air, which is sung by all the shepherds of the island.

Ah graciada señora
Una canzo bouil canta
Bè Bè Bè Bè

No sera gaira pulida
Nosé si vos agradara
Bè Bè Bè Bè

At once my Ivizacan, upon whom this air had the effect of the ranz des vaches on the Swiss, declared, all in tears, that I was a native of Iviza.

I then said to the judge that if he would put me in communication with a person knowing the French language, he would arrive at just as embarrassing result.  An émigré officer of the Bourbon regiment offered at once to make the experiment, and, after some phrases interchanged between us, affirmed without hesitation that I was French.

The judge, rendered impatient, exclaimed, “Let us put an end to these trials which decide nothing.  I summon you, sir, to tell me who you are.  I promise that your life will be safe if you answer me with sincerity.”

“My greatest wish would be to give an answer to your satisfaction.  I will, then, try to do so; but I warn you that I am not going to tell you the truth.  I am son of the innkeeper at Mataró.” “I know that innkeeper; you are not his son.” “You are right.  I announced to you that I should vary my answers until one of them should suit you.  I retract then, and tell you that I am a titiretero (player of marionettes), and that I practised at Lerida.”

A loud shout of laughter from the multitude encircling us greeted this answer, and put an end to the questions.

“I swear by the d—l,” exclaimed the judge,  “that I will discover sooner or later who you are!”

And he retired.

As a result of this spectacular scene of defiance, Arago became the de facto representative of the multi-national contingent of prisoners.  He eventually revealed his true identity to the judge, to avoid being labeled as a Spanish deserter, but this revelation did not quite stop the Spanish attempts to claim the ship.

The next day a strong picquet of troops presented itself before the mill.  The maneouvres made by it inspired all of us with anxiety, but especially Captain Krog [a Norwegian captain who was also held captive].  “What will they do with us?” he exclaimed.  “Alas! you will see only too soon,” replied the Spanish officer.  This answer made every one believe that they were going to shoot us.  What might have strengthened me in this idea was the obstinacy with which Captain Krog and two other individuals of small size hid themselves behind me. A handling of arms made us think that we had but a few seconds to live.

In analysing the feelings which I experienced on this solemn occasion, I have come to the conclusion that the man who is led to death is not as unhappy as the public imagines him to be.  Fifty ideas presented themselves nearly simultaneously to my mind, and I did not rack my brain for any of them; I only recollect the two following, which have remained engraved on my memory.  On turning my head to the right, I saw the national flag flying on the bastions of Figueras, and I said to myself, “If I were to move a few hundred metres, I should be surrounded by comrades, by friends, by fellow citizens, who would receive me affectionately.  Here, without their being able to impute any crime to me, I am going to suffer death at twenty-two years of age.” But what agitated me more deeply was this: looking towards the Pyrenees, I could distinctly see their peaks, and I reflected that my mother, on the other side of the chain, might at this awful moment be looking peaceably at them.

This mock execution seems to have been one final attempt to get Arago to confess his “true” identity as the owner of the seized vessel; with this failure, the captives were conducted to a prison in town.  Once there, Arago sold his pocket watch to a merchant through the prison window for sixty francs, and with the funds they were able to purchase food from other passing vendors.  Later, after Arago had departed, Rosas would fall to the French, and Arago’s father would encounter a Spanish soldier carrying his son’s watch; this led to Arago’s family believing he was dead for quite some time.

Freedom came unexpectedly.  News of the capture of the Regency vessel had reached the Dey (ruler) of Algiers (via, in fact, a letter written by Arago and smuggled out), and that infuriated ruler threatened war with Spain if the ship was not immediately released.  On the 28th of November, 1808 — after some 3 months imprisonment — the ship set sail again for Marseilles.

At this point, however, Arago’s travel would take on an Odyssean level of absurdity.  When their ship had come in sight of the buildings on hill neighboring the city of Marseilles proper, a mistral wind of great violence fell upon the ship and blew them uncontrollably south again.  They ended up at the Algerian city of Béjaïa on the 5th of December, even further away from their destination than before!

Arago was understandably eager to be on his way again, and the only way to catch a ride back to France would be via the port of Algiers, which he had not long earlier passed through.  The local sailors, however, told him that travel by boat to Algeria would be impossible during the three months of winter.  An odd bit of fate made Arago consider a desperate plan:

One evening I was making these sad reflections while pacing the deck of the vessel, when a shot from a gun on the coast came and struck the side planks close to which I was passing.  This suggested to me the thought of going to Algeria by land.

I went the next day, accompanied by M. Berthémie and Captain Spiro Calligero, to the Caïd of the town: “I wish,” said I to him, “to go to Algiers by land.” The man, quite frightened, exclaimed, “I cannot allow you to do so; you would certainly be killed on the road; your Consul would make a complaint to the Dey, and I should have my head cut off.”

Arago and Berthémie actually wrote a letter absolving the local leader of any responsibility for their deaths in the journey.  They then found a Muslim priest to guide them to Algiers and, with a number of Moorish sailors from their ship, made preparations to depart.  There were a few special companions that Arago needed to make his farewells to before he left, however:

I went, at the last moment, to make my bow to the only lion that was still alive, and with whom I had lived in very good harmony; I wished also to say good-bye to the monkeys, who during nearly five months had been equally my companions to misfortune.  These monkeys during our frightful misery had rendered us a service which I scarcely dare mention, and which will scarcely be guessed by the inhabitants of our cities, who look upon these animals as objects of diversion; they freed us from the vermin which infested us, and showed particularly a remarkable cleverness in seeking out the hideous insects which lodged themselves in our hair.

They at last set off towards Algiers.  Along the way, their numbers grew as a number of the Kabyle people joined, with the purpose of reaching the port city and enlisting as sailors.  The growth of the band was fortunate, for many dangers lurked on the remote journey.  Several nights in forested areas, the troop was stalked by hungry lions, though no attacks ever came.  People formed the worst threat, however: At every village, the priest had to scout ahead to negotiate safe passage for the contingent.  At one point, Arago found himself awakened to cries of local Muslim warriors, who had discovered that the band had Christians among it (Arago and Berthémie) and intended to put them to death.  A Muslim sailor and friend of Arago’s, Mehemet, saved them by some quick thinking: he informed the warriors that the two Christians were on a pilgrimage to Algiers to convert to Islam.  Arago and Berthémie joined in the daily prayers to Mecca, which was apparently sufficient evidence regarding their faith.

The group at last arrived at Algiers on December 25, 1808.  Nobody, even the newly-appointed Dey of the city, could believe that the group had come overland from Béjaïa!  Arago and Berthémie went back to the French consulate that had assisted them months earlier.

They spent several months this time in Algiers, and Arago made many pointed observations of the politics and culture of the region.  At last, on the 21st of June, 1809, Arago ended up on a merchant ship that was part of a convoy heading to Marseilles.

This trip was more successful than his previous attempts to reach his homeland, but was not without troubles.  At one point, the convoy was intercepted by an English frigate, that demanded they report to the Hyères Islands to have their fate decided by an English admiral.  The ships defied the order, and narrowly managed to reach the island of Pomègues, just outside of Marseilles, ahead of the English.

The next morning, 2nd of July, 1809, I disembarked at the lazaretto.

At the present day they go from Algiers to Marseilles in four days: it had taken me eleven months to make the same voyage.  It is true that here and there I had made involuntary sojourns.

My letters sent from the lazaretto at Marseilles were considered by my relatives and friends as certificates of resurrection, they having for a long time past supposed me dead.  A great geometer had even proposed to the Bureau of Longitude no longer to pay my allowance to my authorized representative; which appears the more cruel inasmuch as this representative was my father.

Crueler to Arago was the fact that he had one more imprisonment ahead of him: a “lazaretto” is a quarantine station for maritime travelers.  He seems to have spent at least another month in the lazaretto before he finally was completely free:

Having ended my quarantine, I went at once to Perpignan, to the bosom of my family, where my mother, the most excellent and pious of women, caused numerous masses to be said to celebrate my return, as she had done before to pray for the repose of my soul, when she thought that I had fallen under the daggers of the Spaniards.  But I soon quitted my native town to return to Paris; and I deposited at the Bureau of Longitude and the Academy of Sciences my observations, which I had succeeded in preserving amidst the perils and tribulations of my long campaign.

A few days after my arrival, on the 18th of September, 1809, I was nominated an academician in the place of Lalande.  There were fifty-two voters; I obtained forty-seven voices, M. Poisson four, and M. Nouet one.  I was then twenty-three years of age.

Remarkably, Arago had brought all of his research data with him through all of his troubles and journeys, and that data consisted of, in Arago’s words, “the greatest triangulation which had ever been achieved”.  Though there was some objection because of his age, Arago’s achievements earned his a prestigious spot as a Member of the Institute of France.

One more anecdote of Arago’s is worth sharing, which in a sense brings him somewhat full circle from the start of his story:

The Members of the Institute were always presented to the Emperor after he had confirmed their nominations.  On the appointed day, in company with the presidents, with the secretaries of the four classes, and with the academicians who had special publications to offer to the Chief of the State, they assembled in one of the saloons of the Tuileries.  When the Emperor returned from mass, he held a kind of review of these savans, these artists, these literary men, in green uniform.

I must own that the spectacle which I witnessed on the day of my presentation did not edify me.  I even experienced real displeasure in seeing the anxiety evinced by members of the Institute to be noticed.

“You are very young,” said Napoleon to me on coming near me; and without waiting for a flattering reply, which it would not have been difficult to find, he added, — “What is your name?”  An my neighbour on the right, not leaving me time to answer the simple enough question just addressed to me, hastened to say, –

His name is Arago.”

“What science do you cultivate?”

My neighbour on the left immediately replied, –

“He cultivates astronomy.”

“What have you done?”

My neighbour on the right, jealous of my left hand neighbour for having encroached on his rights at the second question, now hastened to reply, and said, –

“He has just been measuring the line of the meridian in Spain.”

The Emperor imagining doubtless that he had before him either a dumb man or an imbecile, passed on to another member of the Institute.

At this point, do you get the impression that Arago led an incredibly eventful life?  By this point in his narrative, he was only 23 years old, and had not yet made his most significant scientific discoveries.  Furthermore, this blog post, which may not seem it but is really only a summary, leaves out many other fascinating anecdotes from this period of his life.  The full autobiography of his youth can be read online, and I recommend it: it is at turns amazing, amusing, enlightening, and even touching.

Scientifically, Arago would go on to play a pivotal role in the acceptance of the wave theory of light.  In 1810, only a year after his return to France, he would attempt and fail to measure variations of the speed of light.  This result can be considered the first experimental evidence of the constancy of the speed of light, a fundamental part of Einstein’s special theory of relativity; with the help of Augustin-Jean Fresnel, Arago would be able to interpret this result as a consequence of the wave nature of light.

Arago would return the favor to Fresnel.  In 1818, for a prize competition of the Académie des Sciences, Fresnel proposed that the wave nature of light explained the phenomenon of diffraction.   The physicist Poisson countered that Fresnel’s explanation was absurd, because it predicted that a bright spot of light should exist in the shadow of an opaque disk.    Arago performed the experiment to test this “absurd” hypothesis, and in fact verified it; this discovery led to the wide and final acceptance of the wave nature of light!

There is so much more to say about Arago: his other discoveries, his founding of a famous and influential scientific journal, his later political life.  This review of his turbulent youth, however, I believe is sufficient to put Arago in the running for the title of “the most interesting physicist in the world”!  If you ever encounter someone who says that physicists (or scientists, in general) are boring people, point them in François Arago’s direction!


* I should note, however, that I really love “The Big Bang Theory” and think the show does a lot to break stereotypes and improve the image of scientists; that, however, is a topic for another post!

** In a hilarious footnote, the editor of Arago’s autobiography comments, “With such precocious heroism it is by no means so clear that the author might not have had a hand in the revolution, from which he endeavours above to exculpate himself.”

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14 Responses to François Arago: the most interesting physicist in the world!

  1. Joe says:

    tl;dr … Just kidding :) Great post! Very clever guy.

  2. Markk says:

    Hey, You now have to more in depth on his science.
    He’ll be coming after you if you don’t!

  3. Thanks to this blog post, I’ve just read the bio you quoted. Free on Kindle.

    • Great! Please let us know your thoughts on the whole bio!

      • I think you hit the high points of the bio. The previous bio I’d read was Benvenuto Cellini’s and that ‘s a high bar to cross; Arago is humble and self effacing by comparison (also, never murdered anyone). I’ve starting reading Arago’s bio of Bailey, whom I hadn’t heard of before. Not nearly as interesting as the Arago’s brief autobio IMO. The man’s perseverance was astonishing! Also, just as well things worked out as they did or he might have been just another artilleryman, or he might have died in the wars.

      • Thanks for the thoughts! Yes, it is fascinating that the crazy roundabout course Arago’s trip took almost certainly changed his life plans.

  4. Erin Edwards says:

    Truly fascinating! Better than the biographies of many famous people. Also comes under the heading that if you made it up, no one would believe it. Makes me have to wonder if anyone checked out any of his stories….:) Is there, in fact, any verification?

    Found this through Not Exactly Rocket Science

    • I personally haven’t looked into it too much myself yet, but others have investigated the details of his stories, when possible! For instance, when Arago was on his way (finally) back to France and the convoy of ships got stopped by the British (but not captured), there is a report of that interdiction in the British naval records. Some of the details of the conflict (number of ships involved, dates and times) seem to be in disagreement between the two sources, but a lot of that can be chalked up to Arago writing much later in life from recollection and hasty diary entries.

      I tend to give Arago the benefit of the doubt because his stories are strikingly not particularly heroic — in most of them, he is simply surviving, not bravely leaping into battle, etc. It’s hard to imagine him fabricating such stories without giving himself a role that depicted himself in a better light!

  5. Xavier Macia says:

    A very interesting post. I would like to point out one thing. Considering where Arago was born it is very likely that he spoke Catalan. The reason “he was able to pass himself off as a Majorcan perfectly” was because if Arago knew Catalan he could also speak Majorcan, which is a dialect of Catalan. At that time the country people of Majorca who have only spoken the Catalan dialect. Majorcan continues to be spoken to this day but is of course under constant attack by the Spanish government and, sadly, ignored by tourists to the island.

    A fascinating article.

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