Friday, October 5, 2012

Robyn Arianrhod's "Seduced by Logic"

Robyn Arianrhod is an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. She is the author of Einstein's Heroes.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution, and reported the following:
This blog introduced me to the Ford Madox Ford test, and I enthusiastically checked page 99 of my own book, Seduced by Logic. I was a little disappointed to find that this was one of the more technical pages in the book, which, taken by itself, would suggest that Seduced is solely about scientific concepts and their history. My disappointment was due to the fact that in my books, I try to create a narrative that introduces science and its history to the general reader through storytelling – through a blend of biography, history, philosophy and science – so in that sense, I ‘failed’ the page 99 test (or rather, it failed me).

Page 99 introduces Leibniz’s contentious formula for kinetic energy – which he called ‘living force’, because the concept of ‘energy’ in physics had not been developed at that time (the late seventeenth century). There is a hint about the importance of choosing the right language when grappling with new concepts, but this discussion takes place more fully elsewhere in the book. Page 99 also mentions someone called Émilie, who evidently was a supporter of Leibniz’s idea, and who was about to explain it to a wider audience through a book of her own, Fundamentals of Physics.

This refers to Émilie du Châtelet – the famous eighteenth century French marquise who was the lover and scientific colleague of Voltaire. The overarching theme in my book is Newton’s astonishing and then-controversial idea about gravity and planetary motion: I tell the story of this controversy not from the usual point of view of mainstream (male) scientists, but through the eyes of some fascinating ‘outsiders’, notably Émilie, Voltaire, and later, Mary Somerville. But page 99 shows that Leibniz – Newton’s colleague and rival, and a key opponent of the theory of gravity – also has an important part to play in the story. In fact, Émilie’s Fundamentals was a brilliantly original attempt to synthesize the competing ideas and philosophies of Newton and Leibniz into something more inclusive than the Newtonian paradigm that has subsequently shaped modern science. In a practical, predictive context, however, Leibniz’s ideas were far-fetched as well as far-reaching, and Émilie later opted for Newton alone: she made the first translation outside Britain of his monumental Principia, and 250 years later, hers is still the definitive French version of what remains one of the most important books of all time.
Learn more about Seduced by Logic at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue