Joseph Plateau  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (October 14, 1801 - September 15, 1883) was a Belgian physicist best known as the inventor of the phenakistiscope. Fascinated by the persistence of luminous impressions on the retina, he performed an experiment in which he gazed directly into the sun for 25 seconds. Consequently, he lost his eyesight later in his life.

Career

Born in Brussels, he studied at the University of Liège (Liège), where he graduated as a doctor of physical and mathematical sciences in 1829. In 1835, he was appointed Professor of experimental physics in Ghent University. In 1836, Plateau invented an early stroboscopic device, the "phenakistiscope". It consisted of two disks, one with small equidistant radial windows, through which the viewer could look, and another containing a sequence of images. When the two disks rotated at the correct speed, the synchronization of the windows and the images created an animated effect. The projection of stroboscopic photographs, creating the illusion of motion, eventually led to the development of cinema.

Plateau also studied the phenomena of capillary action and surface tension (Statique expérimentale et théorique des liquides soumis aux seules forces moléculaires, 1873). The mathematical problem of existence of a minimal surface with a given boundary is named for him. He conducted extensive studies of soap films and formulated Plateau's laws which describe the structures formed by such films in foams.

Fascinated by the persistence of luminous impressions on the retina, he performed an experiment in which he gazed directly into the sun for 25 seconds. Consequently, he lost his eyesight later in his life. He died in Ghent.



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