Catalan's retirement speech

In December 1881 Catalan spoke at his retirement. Below is a translation of his speech.
You can see the French original at THIS LINK

December 7, 1881

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Emotion would render me speechless if I had not taken the precaution of preparing, in advance, a few words of thanks for the honours with which you have given me. They are far from expressing what I feel, but you know the saying: "If the letter kills, the Spirit gives life."

I must first of all give thanks to those who had the idea for this wonderful event, and, in particular, to M. Demaret, the young and zealous Chairman of the Organizing Committee. Secondly, I would ask my illustrious friend Chebyshev, and MM. Folie, Mansion, Neuberg, Le Paige ... my learned colleagues, to accept the expression of my gratitude. Unfortunately, some of those I had hoped to see here are absent. M. Hermite, Honorary President, and the most prominent French geometer, wanted to attend the ceremony but his duties oblige him to stay in Paris. M. General Liagre, who has always been kind to me, had promised to preside: but sadly cannot leave Brussels. This morning, I received a sad letter from my old friend Tresca, my friend for over fifty years: his health prevents him from coming (*). Finally, Mr. Souillart, Professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Lille, and a delegate of the Society of Sciences, is also absent due to illness.

Before you, gentlemen, the masterpiece that is the climax of the reputation of, aptly, Mr. Delpérée. The skillful artist allows me to add to your warm applause, my warmest congratulations.

Finally, I thank you all known and unknown friends, you who, having made this event possible, enhance the radiance of your presence!

I would be guilty of ingratitude if, in this short list, I forgot Belgium, so hospitable to me and to all the French. But I have never felt ingratitude. Besides, how could I forget what I owe to your country? Am I not for you, a quasi-compatriot? Was I not born in Bruges, as my learned colleague and friend just pointed out? Also, in all circumstances, I expressed the affection I feel for my second home (the first, according to M. Mansion). Let me give a proof.

Fifteen years ago, I had read in a public session of the Class of Sciences, the five-year report on the competition. M. Quetelet wanted to introduce myself to the King of the Belgians, who attended the session.

After he had sent me some congratulations, I sent him the following reply, which perhaps surprised him a little, "Sir, since the opportunity presents itself, I will say that I found, Belgium the well-being and security I lacked in France. I thank Belgium and her Government."
Today, gentlemen, the situation has changed: France is free, if not happy, but my gratitude to Belgium remains.

M. Mansion, in his conscientious and too-kind report, did not merely to analyse, in excellent terms, my dry works : he gave a biography of the author. Let us add a few points.

If my early life were painful, I was, however, I must say, fortunately served by circumstances, especially, I never lacked encouragement. Earlier, Mr. Mansion quoted Lefebure Fourcy, who was responsible for my entrance to the École Poytechnique, but in 1827, more modest scientists showed a kindly interest in me. I should mention Lavit and Douliot, my excellent teachers in School of Art! How I loved them! As they loved me! But I am forced to shorten,

Still a child of Paris (a good child!), I saw Legendre and I knew Bouvart: sometimes I was helped (kindly) by Hachette and Ampere. After I left the École Polytechnique, I became the disciple and friend of Liouville, Sturm, Lamé, Arago and Chasles. Later, Poisson, Cauchy, Dirichlet, Jacobi, Steiner and Poncelet welcomed me with great kindness (**). Their scholarly lessons, their meetings, he remained something. It could not be otherwise: for centuries, the influence of the media is unquestionable and unquestioned. The poet Saadi has he not done talking and humble plant: "I am not the rose. But I lived in the neighborhood?" For me, I can not rise to the level of my illustrious master, I have endeavored, by recognition, not to stay below them.

Two passions. Gentlemen, have mostly filled my life: militant Politics and Mathematics, as we used to say. A discourse on Politics would be in bad taste, and be inappropriate in this forum. We would perhaps not agree, you and I. It would not be the same, I am convinced, that if I give my dear students, old and new, not a dissertation on the delights of mathematics (this would lead us too far afield), but a few simple thoughts relating to intellectual work.

Many young people, especially those who aspire to a degree, imagine that to succeed, it is enough to make an extraordinary effort from time to time. They are wrong. To achieve a goal, even when we can clearly see, never mark time: you have to strive, strive constantly. There are many examples and authorities for this.

Newton was asked: "How did you discover gravitation?" "I thought about it all the time," said the great man. After hearing the story, Voltaire adds: "This is the secret of all great discoveries: genius in science, depends only on the intensity and duration of the attention that the head of a man is likely." This is almost the same thought as attributed to Buffon: "Genius comes from patience." Finally, Gauss, as you know, had adopted the motto: "Pauca, sed bona", and he applied this to his daily work. It is true that Pascal, at the age of seventeen, discovered the 'mystic hexagram', but in science as in literature, Pascal was a unique phenomenon.

If continuous, moderate work is safest way to develop mental faculties, it has other effects: most important: it is a great consolation! At the risk of being accused of the sin of pride, I will cite the following example. At various times, I suffered cruel family misfortunes or I appalling disasters. To escape from sad thoughts, and not be brought low with grief, I (excuse the expression) took refuge in work. This calmed my pain as a father, citizen and patriot. So, my young friends, if bad days come, remember that life is a struggle! In the meantime, work hard, and if the advice of your old teacher is unable to persuade you, I will add a wish with which you might agree: "That we will be able to work together for a long time !"

(*) He died last year, after having, perhaps, saved my life! (December 1886).

(**) Following an inexplicable oversight, this list does not contain the name of L. B. Francoeur, Professor at the Sorbonne, whose works were such useful lessons for future students of the École Polytechnique! Towards the end of his scientific career, this great master did me the honour of appointing me his substitute: I gave just one lesson. But a famous Associate Faculty happened to pass through, and despite M. Francoeur wanted to replace M. Francoeur. The honourable Professor, justly hurt, finished his course, after which he resigned.

JOC/EFR September 2012

The URL of this page is: