David Bodanis

Books: History | Biography | Mathematics | Distaff

Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire, and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment (2006)

In France (and Europe) ~1706-1749

Unless you are a geek or a mathematician (or perhaps astronomer) you probably have never heard of Emilie du Chatelet. Not because she lacked achievements, but because she achieved those things as a woman, and because she died young, from child-bed fever.

That we know her story may have as much to do with her long-time lover, Voltare, than because of what she accomplished, since Voltare's papers and letters were saved and this available in later years.

So what kind of girl–and later woman–was Emilie?

"My daughter is mad," Louis-Nicolas soon wrote. "Last week she won more than two thousand gold louis at the card tables, and… spent… half on new books."

Seems reasonable to me.

The text was written in Latin, and yet she read it (aloud) in French. She hesitated a moment at the end of each sentence. I didn't understand why, then saw it was to work through the calculations on the pages. That's how fast she was. Nothing could stop her.

Emilie was extraordinarily lucky in that her father not only encouraged her scientific inquiries, but arranged a marriage for her with a man who tolerate and even accept her quirks.

Florent-Claude knew that although he and his wife would live quite separate lives, as was the custom, it would also help if they came to like each other.

But it was her meeting with Voltaire that changed both of their lives. They were lovers, but even after fights and separations, they remained close friends, spending their lives together in a way that would look to modern eyes like a marriage.

But their relationship wasn't just sex–in fact their relationship wasn't sexual in its final years. It was as much intellectual as they discussed mathematics, science, astronomy, and the nature of God.

(H)e and Emilie prepared a section showing the interconnected, meaningful cycles of nature: the snow on mountaintops came from clouds and moisture in the air, and will melt and replenish the riverbeds, which in turn will fill the seas, from which water vapor can evaporate to turn into rains for farming or more snow up on mountaintops. That's not the sign of a wrathful God, always wanting to terrorize His creations.

But they were both insightful in other matters.

The trick, Voltaire knew, was never to pretend an affection you didn't feel. Any intelligent person would see through that. Rather, you need to find what you genuinely do like about a person and then go ahead and share that.

In medieval times, before modern science, it had been easy to accept that God shaped everything that we saw or lived through. There were no "coincidences," because there were no separate, freely moving causal lines to "co-incide." But the scientific revolution had changed that. Voltaire believed that almost everything we saw around us really was just the result of chance.

He liked that, for since the details of what we experienced were not all part of a complex divine plan, then we had the opportunity to reach out, intervene, and reform the world around us.

But just as fascinating as the science and mathematics is the social world in which the two moved. Madame Pompadour was initially a protege of Voltare, and he also was close with Frederick the Great. Emilie had an affair and long friendship with Louis François Armand du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (marshal of France) and Maupertuis (who was part of the polar expedition the prove Newton's theories on the earth).

All of this, including the history occurring around them was fascinating. But the story ended with the heart break Emilie saw coming: her death bearing a child.

Voltaire never left her, and although not disparaging her fears, he assured her—for who would know as well as he how amazingly one's greatest health worries can be false?—that she really did have a good chance of surviving. She was fit; the pregnancy had advanced with no complications; Lunéville was clean and the air was fresh.

And the saddest thing is that this was not an unreasonable fear–women died constantly from pregnancy and childbirth. Such deaths were a fact of life for millennia, and possibly had as much to do with why there were so few female scientists as the inherent sexism of the time.

This was a fascinating book, and one I definitely recommend if you are interested in learning about the life of a preeminent scientist unknown to the modern world.

Published by Crown

Rating: 8/10