Buffon

Buffon is a nickname given to George Leclerc. As a young man he stupefied his family by declaring he wanted to be a scientist. It was a terrible blow to the family.

He saw only 1 way to really make it as a scientist and that was to become a member of the RAS, The Royal Society in France. As a young man he went and lived with a chemist. It was assumed that he would give a presentation on chemistry to gain acceptance into the RAS. Instead in 1733 he gave a presentation on gambling and probability. These sorts of problems were not new, but Buffon’s was. Unlike other solved problems which involved discrete items such as number of cards or faces to a die Buffon’s problem involved continuous quantities such as the position of a coin on a floor of tiles. He was not admitted into the RAS until 1734 in part due to the interest in verifying his material.

His presentation was recorded in the annals of the RAS but his original paper was lost. He wrote 2 other papers on his geometrical probability problems, but they too are lost.

So why do we see claims such as the following:

“Count George Leclerc Buffon presented the Needle Problem to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, France.”

The work would have been permanently lost save for Buffon’s publishing mania. At one point he had a best seller in France on Natural History. It was the rage to own, not necessary read the many volumes. The appendices in one of the later volumes had a curious entry about these probability problems. That’s right. A book on natural history had an appendix in it having nothing to do with natural history. That was the norm for Buffon. He tossed in all sorts of odds and ends into his books. It is believed that the included paper was not the original content of his 1733 work, but more likely a combination of his earlier papers.

Others such as LaPlace commented on  his problems, but did not name them. In 1814 he published a correction to a mistake made by Buffon, but did not name Buffon.

About 100 years ago one of the pioneers of stochastic geometry found the geometric probabilities paper in the back of Buffon’s natural history book. The book was published in 1777 leading to the mistaken claim that Buffon presented this material in 1777.

After his 1736 paper on the subject Buffon never did anything in the field again. He had turned his attention to natural history. Buffon died in 1788 and left behind a legacy in natural history and certainly left an influence on one of proteges LaMarck.

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