Jean Sylvain Bailly

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Jean-Sylvain Bailly (15 September 1736 – 12 November 1793) was a French astronomer and orator, one of the leaders of the early part of the French Revolution. He was ultimately guillotined during the Reign of Terror.


Scientific career

Born in Paris, he was originally intended for the profession of a painter, but preferred writing tragedies, until attracted to science by the influence of Nicolas de Lacaille. He calculated an orbit for Halley's Comet when it appeared in 1759, reduced Lacaille's observations of 515 zodiacal stars, and was elected a member of the French Academy of Sciences in 1763. His Essai sur la théorie des satellites de Jupiter (Essay on the theory of the satellites of Jupiter, 1766), an expansion of a memoir presented to the Academy in 1763, showed much original power; and it was followed up in 1771 by a noteworthy dissertation Sur les inégalités de la lumière des satellites de Jupiter (On the inequalities of light of the satellites of Jupiter). In 1778, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Meantime, he had gained a high literary reputation by his Éloges of King Charles V of France, Lacaille, Molière, Pierre Corneille and Gottfried Leibniz, which were issued in collected form in 1770 and 1790; he was admitted to the Académie française on 26 February 1784, and to the Académie des Inscriptions in 1785, when Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's simultaneous membership of all three Academies was renewed in him. From then on, he devoted himself to the history of science, publishing successively: Histoire de l'astronomie ancienne (A history of ancient astronomy, 1775); Histoire de l'astronomie moderne (A history of modern astronomy, 3 vols., 1779–1782); Lettres sur l'origine des sciences (Letters on the origin of the sciences, 1777); Lettres sur l' Atlantide de Platon (Letters on Plato's Atlantide , 1779); and Traite de l'astronomie indienne et orientale (A treatise on Indian and Oriental astronomy, 1787). The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica remarks that "Their erudition was… marred by speculative extravagances."

During the French Revolution

The Revolution interrupted his studies. Elected deputy from Paris to the Estates-General, he was elected president of the Third Estate (5 May 1789), led the famous proceedings in the Tennis Court (20 June), and - immediately after the storming of the Bastille - became the first mayor of Paris under the newly adopted system of the Commune (15 July 1789 to 16 November 1791). One of his actions in this position was to secure, with others, and in the face of threats and ridicule, the passage of a decree of 27 September 1791 (confirmed on 30 November of the same year), which declared Jews to be French citizens, with all rights and privileges. This decree repealed the special taxes that had been imposed on the Jews, as well as all the ordinances existing against them.

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