Friday, November 03, 2006

The great Enlightenment love affair

As a diversion from purely British history, you might enjoy reading this review in the Telegraph of David Bodanis's Passionate Minds: the great Enlightenment love affair. The subject of this book is Emilie du Châtelet, Voltaire's mistress and (more importantly) a considerable scientist in her own right. And this is a different type of book altogether from Nancy Mitford's frothy Voltaire in Love which purports to deal with the same subject.

Du Châtelet's greatest achievement was to translate Newton's Principia into French. She also, as the review in the Economist (not on line) points out, 'exposed Newton's obscure geometric proofs using the more accessible language of calculus. And she teased out of his convoluted web of theorems the crucial implications for the study of gravity and energy. That laid the foundation for the next century's discoveries in theoretical physics.'

She died from a childbirth infection, aged 42.

The book raises important issues for October and February starters alike. Was there a role for passion as well as reason in the Enlightenment? Did women have an Enlightenment? If so, why are the female philosophes and intellectuals so much less well known than the men?

PS. The Guardian reviewer thinks du Châtelet's achievements have been exaggerated.