Passionate Minds

2007-12-06

in Books and literature, Science, Writing

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I started Passionate Minds: The Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment, Featuring the Scientist Émilie du Châtelet, the Poet Voltaire, Sword Fights, Book Burnings, Assorted Kings, Seditious Verse, and the Birth of the Modern World with high hopes. It promised science, literature, and history in an accessible package. That promise is only partially realized. While the book does reveal some of the most remarkable (and the most flawed) characteristics of both Voltaire and du Châtelet, it sometimes makes claims that stretch the evidence provided. Often, the book simply asserts things rather than seeking to prove them.

Bodanis’ central thesis – that Émilie du Châtelet has been given insufficient historical attention – is fairly robust. Clearly, hers was an extraordinary life: born into nobility, but driven towards science and the sometimes hapless literary life of Voltaire instead of occupying a more traditional position in the Court. At times, the book demonstrates startling contrasts between the way of life at the time and the present. This is especially true of the marriages: purely political and economic unions in which years of habitation with a prominent lover were apparently not too exceptional. When a court rival attacks Voltaire through a lawsuit, her husband comes to his defence – despite how Voltaire has been living with his wife for years and they are a highly prominent couple.

In the end, the book would have been better if it had focused less on intrigue and more on what significant scientific contributions du Châtelet actually made. Saying that “[m]ore technical aspects of her work played a great role in energizing the French school of theoretical physics, associated with Lagrande and Laplace” isn’t a very convincing way of showing historical importance. Likewise, the assertion that “[t]he use of the square of the speed of light, c2, in Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2 is directly traceable to her work” is never adequately argued.

The book does an excellent job of describing how atrocious the medicine of the time was, contributing to du Châtelet’s own relatively early death in childbirth. It also relates some fascinating historical episodes in an engaging way: for instance, the rigged lottery through which Voltaire made his fortune.

A book about du Châtelet written by someone with more of a focus on studying and explaining science would be a better tribute to the woman than this interesting yet flawed volume.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan December 5, 2007 at 8:56 pm

Naturally, The Economist also has a review.

R.K. December 6, 2007 at 5:45 pm

[T]he assertion that “[t]he use of the square of the speed of light, c2, in Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2 is directly traceable to her work” is never adequately argued.

From du Chatelet’s Wikipedia entry:

“Although the classical mechanics of du Châtelet are not to be compared with Einstein’s concept of mass and velocity, in his famous equation for the energy equivalent of matter E = mc² (where c represents the velocity of light) modern biographers and historians persist in seeing a neat accord with the principle E ~ mv2 first recognised by du Chatelet from over 150 years before. It should be emphasized, however, that from a physical point of view, du Chatelet’s principle is a correct assessment (up to a factor of 1/2) of the kinetic energy in classical mechanics, and is unrelated to Einstein’s Mass–energy equivalence.”

Milan December 7, 2007 at 7:43 pm

I see. In the end, Bodanis is dramatically more interested in sex than science, if this book is representative.

. October 4, 2009 at 10:31 pm

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