a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|This play allows Gabrielle Ã‰milie 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, Ã‰milie 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 Ã‰milie 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 Ã‰milie 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:
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:
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 where Ã‰milie 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 then 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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|(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)|
(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)