Saturday, February 2, 2002
M I N D  G A M E S

Napoleon and the goat

The advancement and perfection of mathematics are intimately connected with the prosperity of the State.

— Napoleon

EIGHTEENTH century France: Napoleon Bonaparte, once again, has been declared the brightest student of mathematics in his school, but the headmaster seems lost. A school inspection scheduled in the evening is on his mind; the school inspector from Paris asks questions that are too difficult for students.

The inspector learns of Napoleon’s achievement and wants to interview this boy immediately. After meeting Napoleon, he meets no other student and sits down to write this report: "Napoleon’s aptitude for mathematics will make him suitable for the navy, but I suggest that he should try for the artillery, where advancement by merit and mathematical skill is much more open." Now, we learn the truth — the school inspector is actually a talent scout of the armed forces of France.


Napoleon’s interview for admission to the artillery with a certain Monsieur Laplace (actually, one of the greatest mathematicians of that time): Laplace: "The interview shall take place in the regiment field; follow me. Napoleon follows him to a circular field." Laplace: "This is a field of unit radius and, as you see, has been fenced in. Here’s a goat and you have to tie it to a point on the interior of the fence with a chain of certain length, so that, it allows the goat to graze exactly half the area of the field."

Napoleon gets a commission in the artillery and, later, becomes the First Consul and member of the Institute de France (the leading scientific society of France), with his friends’ circle comprising mathematicians and scientists like Fourier, Monge, Laplace, Chaptal and Berthollet.

On his grand expedition to Egypt in 1798, Napoleon brings along (in addition to 35,000 troops) over 150 experts in various fields, among them Monge, Fourier, and Berthollet, besides a complete ‘encyclopedie vivante’ with libraries and instruments. Napoleon holds long discussions with his movable institute, much to the discomfort of his generals, who have trouble staying awake during these sessions.

Laplace, who interviewed the young Napoleon for admission to the artillery, has now received many titles and high offices as a result of his friendship with Bonaparte. However, Laplace is relieved of his duties as the Minister of the Interior after only six weeks. With his back towards him and a hand behind it, Napoleon greets his former interviewer in the privacy of his chambers. Laplace: "Why?" Napoleon: "You may be a good mathematician, but you have only doubtful ideas and carry the spirit of the infinitely small into administration. You gave me a copy of your great work, the Mecanique Celeste, and I found that, in this massive volume about the universe, there is not a single mention of God, its creator." Laplace: "Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis."Napoleon: "Just for that answer…" Laplace waits with a lump in the throat as the Emperor finishes, "I return you your office." "You haven’t changed. Do you remember the goat?" Laplace: "Yes, I remember the goat, but can’t figure out how you got the answer that no other candidate could get?" What was Napoleon’s answer? Write at Mind Games, Windows, The Tribune, or

— Aditya Rishi