de Maupertuis, Science and Tornio Valley


There was quite an influx of travellers to Tornio Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries of the common era. Several very famous or should I say, some who became, even more famous after their journey to this part of the globe. In 1736-1737 came an expedition to Tornio Valley to determine the shape of the earth. An argument between the scientists had arisen as to whether the earth was flattened at the poles or whether it was extended – prolate – at these points. There was also under discussion as what kind of shape the earth would be – whether it was an orange or a lemon as I would put these scientific terms: oblate and prolate in layman’s terms of everyday language! Such a droll to be a scientist, methinks…*

The French Cartesians claimed that the latter of the above was the case, whereas Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) held the view, that the earth was flattened – oblate – at the poles. Newton’s claim was set forth in his Principia (Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, 1687). There developed a scientific dispute between London and Paris over the issue. To resolve the dilemma and to find out the facts, Academie Francaise – the French Academy of Science – commissioned two expeditions; one to Peru and the other to Tornio Valley.

A gentleman named, Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759) was the leader of the expedition sent by the French King Louis XV, to Tornio Valley in 1736-1737. Maupertuis was a supporter of Newton’s theory. Anders Celsius – the one where the Centigrade comes from – was one who strongly influenced the French Expedition to take place in Tornio Valley while visiting Paris.

To enable to get the triangulation – the meridian points – measured, a north and south line one degree long was needed. The River Tornio and the mountains surrounding it were just the ticket – were perfectly suited for these measurements. Aavasaksa mountain was the central point for the whole business of getting these triangulation points. Other meridian points that were locally used include the Tornio Church steeple and Pello further north. The party of the expedition had quite an adventure in their task as long treks and dramatic boat journeys were required to do the job.

And the results to the crux – to the puzzle? Sir Isaac won the argument, as the earth is FLATTENED at the poles. The expedition was concluded in Tornio where a map with the finalised calculations was drawn up. Further research was carried out by other scientists. This scientific journey had a major impact in Europe making de Maupertuis to an even more notable scientist and an expert on Lapland.

The other result of these measurements was that for the first time the maps of that time included the Arctic Circle! In the end it was found that de Maupertuis’s measurements did not tally exactly and so later measurements found the shortfall and corrected his findings. Nowadays, the satellites have replaced the men on foot in these matters!

An earlier expedition by an Italian called Francesco Negri took place in 1663. Negri travelled from Danzig in Preussia via Stockholm to Tornio Valley. He wrote about his experiences and about the life in the north of which he became very knowledgeable. He wrote about the Finns and of animals such as reindeer, as well.

Then came the visit of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). He is known in Sweden as Carl von Linne. He is still today, a very well-known scientist and a writer. He was a famous botanist and also a notable physician, who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of taxonomy – the Systema Naturae. Linnaeus is also considered to be one of the fathers of the modern ecology. The Academy of Science at Uppsala commissioned Linnaeus to explore Northern Lapland with its exotic life style of the natives and their state of health.

Yet another two exploration parties came to Tornio Valley in the form of Guiseppe Acerbi, (1773-1846) the Italian, and Edward D. Clarke, (1769-1822) the Englishman. Both of these men wrote about their scientific expeditions to this part of the globe. The year was 1798 – the year of the major upheavals in France, and the following year in 1799, Napoleon (1769-1821) came in to power. Signor Acerbi – the Italian – was accompanied by a Swedish officer called A.F. Sjöldebrand, who is renown for his illustrations of the Tornio Valley landscape.

Tis for now – until the next time, Riihele xx.

* If you take a look at the link on oblate – you will see a picture that to me definitely looks like an ORANGE!! So not a lemon but more of an orange. Hmmm… Must tink about it, now.


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