Today, E. M Forster, Voltaire, and thermodynamics.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization r un, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We know E. M. Forster for his
fine novels: A Passage to India,
Howard's End, and many more. I've just
been reading a section on Voltaire's Laboratory
from his book, Abinger Harvest. As a
writer, wit, and thinker, Voltaire helped put
France on the road to revolution. He's been called
the High Priest of the Enlightenment.
But Forster takes us to the spring of 1737. Here is
Voltaire working with a fine amateur zeal at the
problem of determining the substance of
fire. Scientists imagined that a substance
called phlogiston was liberated during combustion.
But what was phlogis-ton? Certainly no one had ever
seen it or bottled it.
Now a prize is being offered for the best paper on
The Nature and Propagation of Fire, and
Voltaire has joined the competition. Four years
earlier, he'd taken up an affair with a married
aristocrat, Emilie, Marquise du Châtelet.
Emilie was a brilliant, self-taught scientist and
mathematician, and she's drawn Voltaire into her
passion for science. At the moment they're both
Forster talks about the flailing amateur quality of
their ex-periments. They lay thin slices of small
tree trunks on a red hot plate and wonder why one
takes longer than another to burn up. They weigh a
lump of iron, heat it red hot, cool it, and reweigh
it. They accumulate facts, and, all the while, they
bicker and they burn the midnight oil.
Emilie's husband was completely aware of their
relationship, and he seems to have suffered it
willingly. Forster scratches his head over the
twelve-year liaison, and finally says of Voltaire:
He was not a lover -- he had all the
ingredients that make up love, ... tenderness,
pity, lust, selfishness, unselfishness, but they
never combined: he was a chemical experiment,
which, if love be the desired result, may be said
to have failed.
That was similar to the failure suffered by
Voltaire's fact-and-data-filled paper on heat. The
judges divided the prize among others who'd taken a
more theoretical tack. Emilie didn't win the prize
either, but her submission stands up best of them
all in hindsight. Small wonder: The creation of a
correct theory still needed far more facts. A
century later, it became clear that heat isn't a
substance at all. It's a condition of matter.
Emilie had meanwhile made the first translation of
Newton into French, and Voltaire had become
Newton's prophet in Europe. He used the character
Pangloss in Candide (which he wrote with
Emilie looking over his shoulder) to ridicule
Newton's competitor, Leibnitz. The irony of that
is, Leibnitz had already suggested the correct
description of heat just one year after Voltaire's
But Forster's story is about the complexity, not of
heat, but of Voltaire. Under Emilie's influence
Voltaire ultimately became one of the great
popularizers of science. And, in drawing the public
in -- even as Emilie du Châtelet had drawn
him in -- Voltaire contributed enormously to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Forster, E. M. Abinger Harvest. New York:
Harvest Books, 1966, pp. 204-218.
I am most grateful to Drexel Turner and Margaret
Culbertson, UH College of Architecture, for drawing
my attention to the Forster article. Margaret
Culbertson, and Robert Zaretsky of the UH Honors
College, provided additional counsel.
For More on Emilie du Châtelet, see