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Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (2010)
Lauren Gunderson
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This play allows Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, who was a successful mathematical physicist until her tragic death at age 42 in the year 1749, to analyze her own life for the audience.

There is quite a lot to like about this script. Certainly, Emilie du Châtelet is a historical figure who deserves to receive more attention. I really like the way she writes all over the set as if it were a chalkboard. (She writes formulas and keeps a tally of "philosophy" versus "love".) I do not actually know whether that would have seemed natural to a mathematician in the 18th century, but today writing formulas all over everything is a part of the culture of mathematics and so I liked seeing it represented here. The dialogue is often witty and the development of the relationships of Emilie to her husband and to her lover, Voltaire, seem both believable and interesting. (I do not know whether the author based this on reliable evidence or whether it merely "seemed right", but that works.) Finally, I appreciate that the play does not seem to make use of the usual "genius" stereotypes.

The play is thought provoking and emotionally potent. This is true on the personal level of the character of Émilie whose joys and sorrows are shared by the audience as she re-experiences them from beyond the graves. And it is also true on a universal level where it says something about the nature of life, science, and the value of questions over answers. Finally, this work also succeeds at making some important observations about gender bias in science and society.

However, as you might guess, I am often more critical about the portrayal of math than about these other things, and I am concerned that it is somewhat misrepresented here. Let me explain. The impression one receives from this play is as follows:

According to this play: There was a great controversy over Newton's formulation of force. Whereas he defined it by F=mv, his rival Leibniz chose to describe it as F=mv2. (Note the addition of an exponent "2".) Since Newton's formulation would result in all force being "used up" while the alternative preserved force in the universe, the latter was called "living force" while the former was "dead force". Emilie du Châtelet worked to prove and promote the idea of "living force", whose opponents seemed to argue against it primarily out of nationalism and a prejudice against exponents. Through a combination of droll insults and pointing out that Newton uses an exponent in his description of gravity as well as merely by "inserting" the living force into her French translation of Newton, Emilie wins and the "living force" replaces the "dead force".

This formulation works very well from an artistic point of view. On the one hand, the contrast between "living" and "dead" makes for a wonderful metaphor considering that the play involves the spirit of a dead woman remembering her life. Moreover, there is this tremendous sense of triumph as she wins the longstanding logical debate. Unfortunately, it seems to me that much of this is wrong and misleading. I would be happy to be corrected if anyone knows the history better than I and can say that I am mistaken, but to the best of my knowledge the truth is:

The truth, as far as I can tell: There was no controversy surrounding Newton's formulation of force, as represented in the famous formula F=ma. Everyone at the time seems to have agreed that the force required to give a mass m an acceleration of a was the product of those two numbers. Even today, this definition stands with only slight modifications to accommodate relativity and quantum physics.

Rather, the disagreement was about another thing, not force. The two camps were each trying to capture some important quantity associated with an object already in motion, with mass m and velocity v. It seems that both groups called this other quantity "vis viva", which indeed could be translated as "living force". This does indeed differentiate it from just plain "force" as considered in the previous paragraph, but does not differentiate the Newtonian from Leibnizian camps in this debate. Each referred to their own formula ("mv" or "mv2") as "vis viva" because it was still there after the thing was moving.

Most importantly, neither one of these viewpoints turned out to be "the right" or "the wrong" one. Each, in fact, had some "rightness" to it. In the end, both of these things turned out to be important quantities associated to a moving object. We now call mv the momentum and (1/2)mv2 (which is half of the expression du Châtelet promotes in the play as "living force") is called the "kinetic energy". If anything, du Châtelet's "living force" was further from being "correct" at the time that Émilie was arguing for it as it was necessary to formulate the more general notion of total energy (including, potential energy) before it would have the conservation properties that those in her camp were hoping to show it had. Contrary to the implications in the play, those in the opposing camp had some very good arguments since it was demonstrably the case that mv2 was not a conserved quantity as its proponents claimed it was. In any case, as it turns out, each of these things is an important quantity associated with a moving object and, in that sense, both groups were right.

Now, it may be debatable whether it is within artistic license for the author to have altered things quite that much. I would have to say "no", from my own perspective. Not only does she really mess up the math, but she also gives a false impression that this is a story of the triumph of a woman who was right over the stodgy and conservative men who were defending a falsehood. The true story is more nuanced, and I think a bit more interesting as well. It seems a shame to have to exaggerate the accomplishments of this amazing person in order to make her story interesting to a modern audience.

Along the same lines, I would like to say something about a bit near the end of the play whereEmilie takes the formula F=mv2 that appears on the board and adds an extra line to turn the "F" into an "E", remarking that the audience knows better what that means than she does. In fact, I like the formula better in this way, since mv2 is not a force, but I think that the author means more than just that it should be thought of as "energy". Rather, this is probably a hint that (as many popular descriptions of her work suggest) du Châtelet's work in mathematical physics led directly to Einstein's formula E=mc2. In fact, it is not unreasonable to see it as a step towards that formula. This notion of vis viva definitely was a precursor to the notion of energy. However, despite the visual similarity between the two formulas, it would be a mistake to think that du Châtelet essentially had Einstein's formula worked out in the 18th century. In fact, they represent quite different things (the kinetic energy of an object moving at velocity v versus the nuclear energy contained in an object at rest). Once again, my opinion is that it is a shame that we feel we have to exaggerate the achievements of great scientists of history.

Gunderson, a playwright based in Atlanta, GA, is certainly practiced at the difficult art of combining theater with science and math. In this case, she does so with a particularly fascinating true story. However, either because she did not understand the scientific details or because she felt she had to "spice them up", the end result is a bit disappointing to a person like me. I guess I'm the kind of person who wishes that works of fiction "based on a true story" tended to have a bit more "true" and a bit less "story". But, having finally had a chance to see a production of this play in 2016, I can say that I highly recommend it and think it is a masterful work of art even if it may mislead the audience about some of the technical details.

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Works Similar to Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Uniform Convergence: A One-Woman Play by Corrine Yap
  2. The Limit by Freya Smith / Jack Williams
  3. Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarías
  4. Le Cas de Sophie K. by Jean-Frangois Peyret (playwright and director)
  5. Emilie by Kaija Saariaho (composer) / Amin Maalouf (libretto)
  6. Tenet by Lorne Campbell / Sandy Grierson
  7. The Divine Proportions of Luca Pacioli by W.A.W. Parker
  8. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  9. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  10. The Queen's Gambit by Scott Frank (writer&director) / Allan Scott (writer) / Walter Tevis (writer)
Ratings for Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (2 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifReal Mathematicians, Female Mathematicians, Romance, Isaac Newton,
TopicMathematical Physics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)