Emilie Du Chatelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment (Anglais) Broché – 27 novembre 2007
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Présentation de l'éditeur
Although today she is best known for her fifteen-year liaison with Voltaire, Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749) was more than a great man's mistress. After marrying a marquis at the age of eighteen, she proceeded to fulfill the prescribed-and delightfully frivolous-role of a French noblewoman of her time. But she also challenged it, conducting a highly visible affair with a commoner, writing philosophical works, and translating Newton's Principia while pregnant by a younger lover. With the sweep of Galileo's Daughter, Emilie Du Châtelet captures the charm, glamour, and brilliance of this magnetic woman.
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From the window of the queen's apartments at the palace of Lunéville in Lorraine, allées of trees shadow the gravel walks, and borders of yellow and red zinnias brighten the vista. Lire la première page Parcourir les pages échantillon
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Judith P. Zinsser's softcover Emilie Du Châtelet : Daring Genius of the Enlightenment (previously published in hardcover with the title La Dame d'Esprit) is a meticulously researched biography that traces Du Châtelet's "unorthodox intellectual pursuits" as well as her family life, her life in the courts of French and Polish kings and queens, and her too public (and often mocked and derided) extramarital life, mainly with the reknown Voltaire.
The exact nature of Du Châtelet's early education isn't known, but after her marriage and several children (of whom only two survived into adulthood), the marquise sought tutors for herself. They, and a great deal of reading taught her geometry, physics, even calculus. Living with Voltaire provided her with cerebral stimulation, some early guidance and the opportunity to collaborate on literary pieces and, to her greater interest, scientific papers.
As time went on, Du Châtelet became more and more independent of opinion; Voltaire, edgily teasing, called her " 'Emilia Neutonia'" in part because of one of their disagreements about physics: whether Newton's definition of "force, the modern concept of 'momentum'," was correct. Du Châtelet favored Leibniz's formula (basically, kinetic energy) instead, and she wrote as much in her Institutions de physique (Lessons in Physics), a book in which she tackled, among other big topics: space, time, and matter. This book was published`in 1740, when she was thirty-four. She wrote other scientific works, often considered derivative by her contemporaries and future generations, but which contained her own unique syntheses and conclusions. Her greatest project, on which she labored mightily during her final pregnancy but which was not published until years after her death, was a translation of Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. It remains the only French language translation in use.
Zinsser sedulously recreates the life and times of Du Châtelet with a historian's scruples. Often direct documentation of Du Châtelet's particulars aren't in the record. For example, no letters between Du Châtelet and Voltaire have survived -- at least none known. And there are precious few personal facts of Du Châtelet's childhood. So, Zinsser makes due with phrases such as "she may have" and "perhaps she." The reader garners a great deal of knowledge about the conventions, the styles, the economic realities, and the class structure, but the threadbare sections in Du Châtelet's personal history cannot be denied. As a result, Emilie Du Châtelet : Daring Genius of the Enlightenment contains a sense of detachment and uncertainty that a biography would rather not have to bear. However, as a vigilant historian, Zinsser wisely simply acknowledges the gaps in the evidence and discusses possibilities.
The marquise's lingering reputation marked her as a woman given to flightiness, airs, and too-public sexual freedom...perhaps because she -- as she said -- lived so her exterior reflected her heart. Her intellectual prowess got tamped down in the silts of time. Perhaps now, Du Châtelet's legacy can be evaluated in a more balanced manner. Perhaps now, her contributions of the mind can be truly appreciated.
Zinsser uses an incredible array of historical sources, from Chatelet's writings, to Voltaire's letters, to inventories of 18th century French homes in her vivid recreation of the period and Chatelet's life. A refreshing and decidedly feminine perspectives on Voltaire and the Republic of Letters is welcome here as we see both historical and biographical paradigms rejected and replaced with new scholarship. Zinsser reasserts du Chatelet's place as a scientist and philosopher in her own right, dispelling much of the sexist and erroneous slander directed at du Chatelet in the last few centuries.
As a historian, I am intrigued and delighted with this book. As a reader, there is a significant portion of this novel that could easily be called boring - in-depth explanations of translating Newtonian theory seriously inhibits the flow of this biography as popular literature. Still, the wonderful detail and insight make it worth a boring chapter or two. In what other book could you find a discussion of Newtonian physics alongside an explanation of bathroom habits at Versailles?
She established an "Académie" at her country estate at Cirey, France, inviting a number of the "gens qui pensent" to stay for extended periods, to engage there with one another in probing pursuits of scientific truths and higher mathematics.
She also took on the role of protecting Voltaire from himself, as many of his treatises and plays were politically inflammatory, and put him in danger of reprisal.
After a number of years in frivolous engagements as was expected of the wife of a marquis, she discovered the joy of studying math and science -geometry, calculus, physics.
The scientific "heavyweights" at mid-18th Century were wrestling with the nature of matter, motion, force, fire. She wrote on these topics, following much study and experimentation, in her Institutions de physique. Interestingly at the time, there was argument over whether mv or mv2 correctly represented the relation of force and motion. (The truth is that both do), but it divided 17th Century physiciens into two camps.
The calculus was just coming into being and she brought to Cirey a tutor who could assist her to study this new kind of mathematics.
Of Newton's writings in his Principia, she made corrections in the margins.
She proceeded in her acquisition of scientific knowledge in a way that is very much like the modern approach, using experimentation to corroborate a model or idea of a concept or relationship, and stating that one verifiable counterexample is enough to negate it. Scientific "truth" resulted from following clear rules of reasoning.
I like her manner of thinking of space and time, that one needed only to conceive of them abstractly: She "made the analogy to numbers: space was to coexisting things as numbers were to numbered things. One thing required no number, just as one thing required no space. Only a `multitude of things' made numbers necessary; similarly, only a `multitude of things' require the idea of space. She described time in the same way. In its most basic aspect it, too, was only spatial; it was nothing more that the order of things in succession. ...`Successive existence makes Time' *
The Marquise du Châtelet carried out her roles as wife and mother of three children, often staying up late into the night or early morning doing her writing in secret, because she had to deal with the stereotypical expectations and prejudices of her time in history, but nonetheless produced remarkable books and writings, admired by scholarly men of the time. In addition to her own writings, she skillfully translated into French erudite writings from Latin and English (including Newton's Principia) and was the first woman to be accepted into l'Académie Française.
Author Zinsser enriches the book with the social context of courtiers of this period of time in France. She includes fascinating details of the era, in addition to giving us a sense of the remarkable intellectual accomplishments of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil.
*op cit., Penguin Books, 2006, p. 179
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