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Passionate minds : the great love affair of…
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Passionate minds : the great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring… (2006)

by David Bodanis

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A biography of Voltaire's mistress who was an accomplished mathematician who helped spread Newton's analytics into France. ( )
  M_Clark | Apr 26, 2016 |
This is another of those books that makes me happy I was born in the US in the latter half of the 20th century. When men read books that document how women were treated like crap, are they at all ashamed? Honestly it’s so insulting and unnecessary, especially the extremes to which some cultures go, in this case the French, to keep women as mere objects is unreal. I truly don’t understand it at all. Why are women so threatening to men? When Emilie was submitting her paper to the French Academy of Science, I hoped she’d do it under a man’s name to see if it made a difference. Alas, she didn’t and of course she didn’t win.

The thing that is most interesting to me is how this kind of treatment makes women into the empty-headed, overly-emotional, crafty and conniving creatures men think them to be innately. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy so to speak. Emilie herself often despairs at her lack of quality female friends specifically because they are so spiteful and stupid. Their men, their whole society convinces them that this is all they should be or should even want to be. How women like Emilie endured it is beyond me. It’s a wonder she didn’t take her fencing prowess and run a few of the bastards through.

Even for the smart women like Emilie, this automatic assignment of the inferior undermines everything she does. Certainly more than any other man then, and even probably today, she second-guesses everything she does and thinks. She wonders if she can do what she intends to do with her writing, her relationships and most of all her study and reading. And instead of encouraging her, Voltaire often competes with her out of his own sense of inferiority and at the same time superiority with regard to her. His ego just wouldn’t let her succeed. It’s the same old thing; men fear women will laugh at them and women fear men will kill them. If it weren’t so pathetic and true, it would be funny.

But enough of that. You want to hear about the book. It’s excellent. It isn’t as deep as some books would have gone insofar as background information goes, but I found that to work better for the narrative. It didn’t get tangled up in pages and pages of explanatory information regarding societal norms, scientific approaches, laws, church doctrine or any of the other countless influences on their lives. Instead Bodanis just states a thing was what it was and gets on with showing how it influenced the situation. There was a lot; corruption and abuse of power chief among them because they could physically affect the people involved. Really this was Voltaire’s constant problem. The man was a dope. Time after time he either says or writes something he knows could get him in trouble. Insulting the aristocracy or the church would do it and even if he didn’t deliberately publish something incendiary, he’d often leave his writing vulnerable for enemies to steal and pass on to those who could jail him or worse. He never learned and that was only one of his more obnoxious character traits. Malingering was another. But the man could write and obviously had the ability to somewhat understand that Emilie had an impressive intellect.

Just thinking about what came to her so easily makes my head hurt and vaguely gives me an inferiority complex. She understood and could expand upon Newton’s Principia. She could solve long and complex mathematical calculations in mere seconds. She could take obscure concepts and make them understandable to the rest of us. She read Latin and was fluent in several languages. She was a master planner and tactician. She was polished and a shrewd diplomat when she had to be. I only wonder at how famous she’d be if she’d worn her sex organs on the outside (how silly). ( )
2 vote Bookmarque | Apr 2, 2016 |
More on 18th century French scientist/ philosopher Emilie du Chatelet, although this rollicking non-fiction tale focuses a bit more on Voltaire than on his friend and lover, & in any event, more on their relationship then on aspects of du Chatelet's life & work not contingent upon that relationship. I do love one episode related late in the book. After their carriage toppled over & while Voltaire & du Chatelet waited for their servants to return with help from the nearest town, they "placed cushions in the thick snow beside the road, got under their favorite furs, and then lay back beneath the stars." According to Voltaire's valet, "they discoursed--while shivering, I should point out--on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space. I believe that only the fact that they lacked a telescope kept them from being perfectly happy. Their spirit being lost in the depths of the heavens, they no longer saw their situation on the earth--or, if I might be exact, their situation on the snow and in the middle of so much ice."
( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
An interesting book about the lifelong relationship between Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet. Emilie was a mathematician and physicist who furthered understanding of Newton's work and expanded on it. Unfortunately, being female, her work didn't get the recognition it should have gotten at the time.

There are some great anecdotes in the book, imparting an intimate understanding of the daily lives (including the love lives) of numerous major and minor personages, and also an understanding of the intellectual life of Enlightenment Era France. Being Catholic and an absolute monarchy (supported by a powerful aristocracy, France at the time was an inhospitable place for intellectuals, who were likely at any time to be tossed into the Bastille for expressing unorthodox ideas.

My favorite anecdote concerned an English actor named Bond who, after failing to be cast in one of Voltaire's plays, rented a theater himself so that he could stage his own production and take on a coveted role. In doing do, he emoted so powerfully during his death scene at one performance that he actually died. The patrons and other actors weren't too put off by this. Actors clamored to play the role and patrons flocked to see the only play with the "Role that Kills." Voltaire was impressed and pleased.

My only beef with the book was with the writing. Often the sentences were awkwardly written, with multiple clauses that made the meanings of the sentences hard to parse. Also, the author, in his introduction, criticized a previous bio of du Chatelet, saying that since its writer wasn't a scientist, the import of du Chatelet's work wasn't highlighted sufficiently. Accordingly, Bodanis's intro led me to expect some cogent science writing, which this book doesn't really offer in any great quantity.

Still, fans of history and biography are likely to give this book higher marks than I. I take books like these as a kind of medicine. Some greens, roughage, and antioxidants to go along with the tasty fiction I usually read. ( )
  EricKibler | Apr 6, 2013 |
An interesting book about the lifelong relationship between Voltaire and Emilie du Chatelet. Emilie was a mathematician and physicist who furthered understanding of Newton's work and expanded on it. Unfortunately, being female, her work didn't get the recognition it should have gotten at the time.

There are some great anecdotes in the book, imparting an intimate understanding of the daily lives (including the love lives) of numerous major and minor personages, and also an understanding of the intellectual life of Enlightenment Era France. Being Catholic and an absolute monarchy (supported by a powerful aristocracy, France at the time was an inhospitable place for intellectuals, who were likely at any time to be tossed into the Bastille for expressing unorthodox ideas.

My favorite anecdote concerned an English actor named Bond who, after failing to be cast in one of Voltaire's plays, rented a theater himself so that he could stage his own production and take on a coveted role. In doing do, he emoted so powerfully during his death scene at one performance that he actually died. The patrons and other actors weren't too put off by this. Actors clamored to play the role and patrons flocked to see the only play with the "Role that Kills." Voltaire was impressed and pleased.

My only beef with the book was with the writing. Often the sentences were awkwardly written, with multiple clauses that made the meanings of the sentences hard to parse. Also, the author, in his introduction, criticized a previous bio of du Chatelet, saying that since its writer wasn't a scientist, the import of du Chatelet's work wasn't highlighted sufficiently. Accordingly, Bodanis's intro led me to expect some cogent science writing, which this book doesn't really offer in any great quantity.

Still, fans of history and biography are likely to give this book higher marks than I. I take books like these as a kind of medicine. Some greens, roughage, and antioxidants to go along with the tasty fiction I usually read. ( )
  EricKibler | Apr 5, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307237206, Hardcover)

It was 1733 when the poet and philosopher Voltaire met Emilie du Châtelet, a beguiling—and married—aristocrat who would one day popularize Newton’s arcane ideas and pave the way for Einstein’s theories. In an era when women were rarely permitted any serious schooling, this twenty-seven-year-old’s nimble conversation and unusual brilliance led Voltaire, then in his late thirties, to wonder, “Why did you only reach me so late?” They fell immediately and passionately in love.

Through the prism of their tumultuous fifteen-year relationship we see the crumbling of an ancient social order and the birth of the Enlightenment. Together the two lovers rebuilt a dilapidated and isolated rural chateau at Cirey where they conducted scientific experiments, entertained many of the leading thinkers of the burgeoning scientific revolution, and developed radical ideas about the monarchy, the nature of free will, the subordination of women, and the separation of church and state.

But their time together was filled with far more than reading and intellectual conversation. There were frantic gallopings across France, sword fights in front of besieged German fortresses, and a deadly burning of Voltaire’s books by the public executioner at the base of the grand stairwell of the Palais de Justice in Paris. The pair survived court intrigues at Versailles, narrow escapes from agents of the king, a covert mission to the idyllic lakeside retreat of Frederick the Great of Prussia, forays to the royal gambling tables (where Emilie put her mathematical acumen to lucrative use), and intense affairs that bent but did not break their bond.

Along with its riveting portrait of Voltaire as a vulnerable romantic, Passionate Minds at last does justice to the supremely unconventional life and remarkable achievements of Emilie du Châtelet—including her work on the science of fire and the nature of light. Long overlooked, her story tells us much about women’s lives at the time of the Enlightenment. Equally important, it demonstrates how this graceful, quick-witted, and attractive woman worked out the concepts that would lead directly to the “squared” part of Einstein’s revolutionary equation: E=mc2.

Based on a rich array of personal letters, as well as writings from houseguests, neighbors, scientists, and even police reports, Passionate Minds is both panoramic and intimate in feeling. It is an unforgettable love story and a vivid rendering of the birth of modern ideas.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:26 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"It was 1733 when the poet and philosopher Voltaire met Emilie du Chatelet, a beguiling - and married - aristocrat who would one day popularize Newton's arcane ideas and pave the way for Einstein's theories. In an era when women were rarely permitted any serious schooling, this twenty-seven-year-old's nimble conversation and unusual brilliance led Voltaire, then in his late thirties, to wonder, "Why did you only reach me so late?" They fell immediately and passionately in love." "Through the prism of their tumultuous fifteen-year relationship we see the crumbling of an ancient social order and the birth of the Enlightenment. Together the two lovers rebuilt a dilapidated and isolated rural chateau at Cirey where they conducted scientific experiments, entertained many of the leading thinkers of the burgeoning scientific revolution, and developed radical ideas about the monarchy, the nature of free will, the subordination of women, and the separation of church and state." "But their time together was filled with far more than reading and intellectual conversation. There were frantic gallopings across France, sword fights in front of besieged German fortresses, and a deadly burning of Voltaire's books by the public executioner at the base of the grand stairwell of the Palais de Justice in Paris. The pair survived court intrigues at Versailles, narrow escapes from agents of the king, a covert mission to the idyllic lakeside retreat of Frederick the Great of Prussia, forays to the royal gambling tables (where Emilie put her mathematical acumen to lucrative use), and intense affairs that bent but did not break their bond." "Along with its riveting portrait of Voltaire as a vulnerable romantic, Passionate Minds at last does justice to the supremely unconventional life and remarkable achievements of Emilie da Chatelet - including her work on the science of fire and the nature of light. Long overlooked, her story tells us much about women's lives at the time of the Enlightenment. Equally important, it demonstrates how this graceful, quick-witted, and attractive woman worked out the concepts that would lead directly to the "squared" part of Einstein's revolutionary equation: E=mc[superscript 2]." "Based on a rich array of personal letters, as well as writings from houseguests, neighbors, scientists, and even police reports, Passionate Minds is both panoramic and intimate in feeling. It is an unforgettable love story and a vivid rendering of the birth of modern ideas."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 3 descriptions

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