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Column | Far from the right board

I sat on a bench in the sun. With a sad heart. There was also much to be sad about. This is how I was thinking about my former students and colleagues at Amsterdam University College (AUC). Until recently I enjoyed lecturing there. Now – that was ten days ago – police with batons confronted a group of pro-Palestine students, disguised in hoods and scarves, who had been blocking access to the building for several days. Forbidden.

My cell phone rang, interrupting my thoughts: Someone wanted to do a podcast about Emilie du Chatelet. She wanted to know what the “kinetic energy” equation was. Did Du Chatelet conclude this first?

First thing about him Du ChateletWho was born in 1706 into a wealthy, low-nobility family in Paris. After marrying the Marquis du Châtelet at the age of nineteen, she entered the highest circles of the French court as a marquise. But after a few years, when she had given birth to three children, she decided that she had fulfilled her marital duties, and proposed to her husband that they should live their own lives, side by side, from now on.

Long story short: Du Chatelet focused on the natural sciences. She translated Newton's famous book principles From 1687 from Latin to French, supplemented with knowledge of modern experiments, which helped spread Newton's insights. She wrote scientific articles on fire and heat, among other things. In 1740 she published it dedicated to her son Fitness institutesIn which she explained the state of physics in her time and analyzed the nature and strength of the scientific method.

Spring recovery

No, she did not derive that formula for kinetic energy. However, people at that time did not operate with our modern concepts of “energy” or “force.” Du Chatelet did something different. It formulated the seeds of one of the most important laws of physics: the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can change from one form to another, but it cannot simply disappear. Using a spring, among other things, I explained the law of the limit state of kinetic energy. Du Chatelet explained in the language of her time that the amount of energy needed to compress a spring is released after it is released in the form of kinetic energy of the rebound spring.

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Our phone conversation covered formulas, equations, laws and their role in physics. You cheered me up. This was not because physics, as people often think, describes (part of) the world in conclusive and therefore reassuring formulas. Physics problems are not Sudoku. There is always a gap between physical equations and the reality they are trying to describe. It gives physics an interface with poetry, which also embodies a reality that simultaneously eludes us – like Vincent Icke. Beautifully written recently In the Dutch Journal of Physics.

He wrote that in calculations, for example, physicists like to compare the Earth to a sphere. Einstein mentioned that he showed with his famous equation that mass and energy are equal. And Schrödinger, whose famous equation gave particles a wave character and vice versa. But of course the Earth is not a perfect sphere. It has not yet been possible to reconcile Einstein and Schrödinger's equations.

Fresh air

I think this is exactly what pleased me: that physicists are not only looking for the best description of (part of) reality, but they are also looking – through experiments or mathematical adventures – to see and discover where things are going wrong. Where the crack. Because light falls through the slit and fresh air flows inside. And if you dig into the rift, you might discover a new perspective or scene.

How convenient this approach is when you think of politicians who, out of fear of changing views on race, color or language, want to put a strangling bell over the country. To the conspiracy theorists who paint a dark world with semi-logical logic. To confrontations like what happened at the American University in Cairo, where people try to prove their point with face coverings or batons – which goes against everything that science – in the broadest sense – represents or should represent.

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Du Chatelet's son was beheaded for charity during the French Revolution when he was an officer. But that afternoon, he rejoiced in the tradition of the natural sciences, shaped in part by his mother, and whose strength lies precisely in the search for the “crack” between what theories describe and what is or could be. And by the way: this was also the way in which du Châtelet – who was a marquise and mistress of Voltaire, a mother and naturalist, a natural philosopher and an avid gambler – never allowed herself to be pushed into schemes and boxes.

Margaret van der Heijden is a physicist and professor of science communication at TU Eindhoven.