Star Trek Inspiration? Meet the Real Jean Picard

Captain Jean-Luc Picard is almost as iconic a figure as his predecessor, James Tiberius Kirk, when it comes to the Star Trek mythology. But was there a real-life inspiration for the name?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard is almost as iconic a figure as his predecessor, James Tiberius Kirk, when it comes to the Star Trek mythology. But was there a real-life inspiration for the name?

Well, if you believe Wikipedia, Gene Roddenberry got the name of his next-generation captain from Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard (with two c's), who designed the Bathyscaphe Trieste. It was the first such vessel to bring two men to the bottom of the Challenger Deep (more than six and a half miles below sea level) on January 23, 1960, one of whom was Auguste's son, Jacques. Auguste also had a twin brother, Jean-Felix.

However, there is another Jean-Felix Picard: a 17th century astronomer and Jesuit priest who was the first to measure the size of the Earth, coming within 0.44% of the modern value despite using very basic instruments (telescopes, quadrants, sextants and micrometers). He was also one of the first to apply scientific methods to map-making.

This Jean-Felix Picard was born in a town called La Fleche along the Loire River in 1620 to a bookseller, and wound up attending the Jesuit College there, then considered one of the best educational centers in France, with more than 1,000 students. That said, it wasn't the most stable period in French history, with outbreaks of civil unrest, and Jean-Felix left in 1644 and moved to Paris without, it seems, completing any kind of formal degree.

In Paris, he quickly found a mentor in the eminent mathematician and astronomer Pierre Gassendi, assisting with observations of solar and lunar eclipses. Little is known about Picard's life during this period, but by 1655, Picard had become a professor of astronomy at the College de France in Paris, despite having no (known) published work.

Yet his reputation among scientists was excellent - he exchanged letters with such luminaries as Christian Huygens, Isaac Newton, Ole Romer and Giovanni Cassini, among others - and he was one of the first members of the Academie Royal des Sciences when it was founded in 1666.

Why was this quiet, unassuming man so highly regarded by scientists whose names are much more familiar to us today? Mostly it was because Picard was passionate about precision when it came to making measurements. As a result, the measurements he made were among the best of his era. It's tedious, time-consuming work; it takes a special kind of detail-oriented personality to excel at such tasks.

Picard also had a knack for adapting the ideas and techniques of others for his purposes. The micrometer, for instance was developed by others; ditto for telescope sights.

Picard attached both instruments to a standard quadrant when making his measurements of the radius of the Earth, thereby increasing the precision of his observations. As a result, Picard's values were far more accurate than the ones made by his predecessor, Tycho Brahe - so much so, that Newton relied on those values when developing his universal theory of gravity.

Speaking of Brahe, Picard later had the opportunity to work in Brahe's own Uraniborg observatory in Sweden (see image), working with Romer to observe 140 eclipses of one of Jupiter's moons, Io. Back in Paris, another astronomer made identical observations, so that the two teams could then compare the data and determine the observatory's precise location. This made it easier to compare Brahe's historical observational data with contemporary observations.

Picard continued to observe the Jovian moons with Romer back home in the Paris Observatory. Eventually this work led to Romer's seminal calculation of the speed of light, since he could take into account discrepancies in the time it took light to travel to earth during such eclipses.

What else? Well, Picard had a gift for hydraulics and helped solve the problem of how to keep a steady supply of water flowing to the many ponds and fountains at Versailles. He published a book, Mesure de la Terre, in 1671 - the only record of his work published in his lifetime - and developed the standard method for measuring the right ascension of a given celestial object.

Perhaps that seems too paltry a list of scientific accomplishments. Maybe other scientists are credited with more exciting contributions, but in order to make those discoveries, they relied upon Picard's painstaking behind-the-scenes work to "make it so." That's why there's a lunar crater named after him, as well as the orbiting solar observatory PICARD. But to most of us, he's just an obscure footnote in science history.

I suspect Captain Jean-Luc Picard would have been proud to have such a man as Jean-Felix on board the Enterprise, making precision measurements to chart their course through the vast expanse of space.

Image credit: Getty