François Arago

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François Jean Dominique Arago (French pronunciation: [fʁɑ̃swa aʁaɡo]; Catalan: Francesc Joan Domènec Aragó, IPA: [fɾənˈsɛsk əɾəˈɣo]; 26 February 1786 – 2 October 1853) was a French Catalan mathematician, physicist, astronomer and politician.

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Early life and work

Arago was born at Estagel, a small village near Perpignan, in the département of Pyrénées-Orientales, Catalan France, where his father held the position of Treasurer of the Mint. He was the eldest of four brothers. Jean (1788–1836) emigrated to North America and became a general in the Mexican army. Jacques Étienne Victor (1799–1855) took part in Louis de Freycinet's exploring voyage in the Ukranie from 1817 to 1821, and on his return to France devoted himself to his journalism and the drama. The fourth brother, Étienne Vincent de (1802–1892), is said to have collaborated with Honoré de Balzac in The Heiress of Birague, and from 1822 to 1847 wrote a great number of light dramatic pieces, mostly in collaboration.

Showing decided military tastes, François Arago was sent to the municipal college of Perpignan, where he began to study mathematics in preparation for the entrance examination of the polytechnic school. Within two years and a half he had mastered all the subjects prescribed for examination, and a great deal more, and, on going up for examination at Toulouse, he astounded his examiner by his knowledge of J. L. Lagrange.

Towards the close of 1803 Arago entered the École Polytechnique, Paris, but apparently found the professors there incapable of imparting knowledge or maintaining discipline. The artillery service was his ambition, and in 1804, through the advice and recommendation of Siméon Poisson, he received the appointment of secretary to the Paris Observatory. He now became acquainted with Pierre-Simon Laplace, and through his influence was commissioned, with Jean-Baptiste Biot, to complete the meridian arc measurements which had been begun by J. B. J. Delambre, and interrupted since the death of P. F. A. Méchain in 1804). Arago and Biot left Paris in 1806 and began operations along the mountains of Spain. Biot returned to Paris after they had determined the latitude of Formentera, the southernmost point to which they were to carry the survey. Arago continued the work until 1809, his purpose being to measure a meridian arc in order to determine the exact length of a metre.

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