Joseph Plateau

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Joseph Plateau
Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau
Daguerrotype portrait of Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau dated 1843
Birthday/Birthplace (1801-10-14)14 October 1801
Deceased 15 September 1883(1883-09-15)
Citizenship Belgian
College(s) University of Liège
Credit for Physics of soap bubbles (Plateau’s laws), Plateau’s problem
Scientific career
Institutions Ghent University
Doctoral advisor Adolphe Quetelet

Joseph-Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (Brussels, Belgium, October 14, 1801 – Gent, Belgium, September 15, 1883) was a Belgian physicist who defined in 1829 the principle of the persistence of the vision. In 1832 he invented the phenakistiscope, one of the precursors of the cinematograph. He carried out investigations on the capillarity between thin liquid sheets and in 1861 showed that the resulting surfaces are minimal. The generalization of these results was enunciated by Plateau’s laws.

The problem in mathematics of obtaining the surface that contains a given curve in space, such that the area covered by the curve is minimal, is known as Plateau’s problem in his honor.

Joseph Plateau’s Biography

Childhood and youth

Son of a talented flower painter, Joseph Plateau receives an artistic education and develops an interest in the natural sciences during his stays in the castle of Marche-les-Dames, where he visits the forges of his great uncle and hunts butterflies. Plateau’s mother dies when he is 13 years old.

Plateau began his studies at the Design Academy in Brussels, as his father insisted on following in his footsteps as an artist. After a year, he dies, a fact that impresses Plateau deeply. The lawyer Thirion, his maternal uncle, takes care of him and his two sisters. Plateau’s interest in physics increases and he soon organizes evenings where experiments are carried out with instruments built by him that impress the audience.

Between 1817 and 1822 Joseph Plateau attends class at the school “Atheneum” in Brussels. One of his teachers (between 1819 and 1822) is Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), for whom Plateau will hold great esteem throughout his life and with whom he will maintain an abundant correspondence. Quetelet is the founder of the periodical publication “Correspondance mathématique et physique” and many of Plateau’s most relevant works will see the light on its pages.

In 1827 he became a professor of mathematics at the “Atheneum” school in Brussels.

In 1828 he was looking at the Sun for 25 s followed by an experiment with self-images and lost sight for several days.

In 1829 Joseph Plateau forwards the draft of his doctoral thesis to his mentor Adolphe Quetelet for advice and guidance. The thesis contains only 27 pages, but makes many fundamental conclusions. In particular, he describes the first results of his research on the effects of colors on the retina (print duration, intensity and color), mathematical developments about the intersection between curves in revolution, the observation of the distortion of moving images , as well as about the reconstruction of distorted images through rotating disks in opposite and superposed directions.

With this document, Plateau obtained his doctorate in mathematics and physics in 1829 from the University of Liège. He worked in Brussels and then moved to Ghent, where he was appointed professor of experimental physics in 1835, teaching physics and astronomy.


In 1840 he was diagnosed with bilateral chorioretinitis. Later, cataracts form, and between 1843 and 1844, at the age of 42, he becomes blind, Plateau has often been considered a “martyr for science”. Although the association between injuries suffered by observing the Sun directly in 1828 and subsequent blindness seemed natural at the time, recent research questions such a relationship.

It is not possible to establish the exact date of your blindness. This is undoubtedly a gradual process between Plateau himself, through the publication of two articles, describes in a scientific way.

After 40 years of blindness, it still retains some subjective visual capacity. Always with the help of colleagues and family, for your experiments and desk work. His wife Fanny Clavareau reads her publications and letters daily, acting as secretary. It is considered possible that his sister Joséphine, given her artistic talent, collaborate with graphic representations and illustrations.

His colleagues, including Quetelet himself, help him carry out experiments, leaving the analytical approach to problems to Plateau’s enormous analytical capacity. His son-in-law, Gustave Van der Mensbrugghe (1835-1911), carries out the demonstrations during the conferences that Plateau delivers in different societies and organizations.


After his death, he was buried in the Mariakerke cemetery, in Ghent, at a ceremony attended by numerous personalities. The grave in which he was buried is not preserved.

More Facts about Joseph Plateau

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