Book Club

The Chair read for you L’énergie racontée à travers quelques destins tragiques by Jacques Percebois

Published on 14 December 2020

What is there in common between Emilie du Châtelet, a physicist and companion of Voltaire, and Frank Ramsey who was one of Keynes’ closest economists? Both of them were selected by Jacques Percebois to open and close the eleven portraits that mark out his latest and most singular book: L’énergie racontée à travers quelques destins tragiques [1].

Tragic destinies: Madame du Châtelet dies prematurely in 1749 a few days after giving birth to her daughter who will not survive either. In 1930, Ramsey died at the age of 27 from an incurable disease, but had time to formulate some famous theorems of economics thanks to his mathematical talents. And the link with energy? This is where the erudition and talent of Jacques Percebois comes into play, linking each of his portraits to a major aspect of the history of energy.

Emilie du Châtelet is known to have translated Newton’s Principia. She was an expert in the physical sciences and her contribution to science went beyond that of a simple translator. In the very lively debate of the time on “living forces”, she did not hesitate to oppose Newton (and Voltaire) by defending Leibniz’s thesis on the “living force” of matter, in other words kinetic energy, which according to him was equal to the product of its mass by the square of its speed. An equation at the basis of the restricted relativity that made Einstein famous in the 20th century. Jacques Percebois then reminds us how central this equivalence between mass and energy is to understanding the history of nuclear energy. An energy on which many hopes were founded but which faced the challenge of security, at the origin of another tragic destiny: that of the academician Valeri Lagassov who committed suicide in 1988, two years after the accident at the Chernobyl power plant.

Among the theorems that made Ramsey famous was that of Ramsey-Boiteux on optimal pricing of electricity based on marginal cost. The development of the energy vector electricity has since its inception posed a particular problem because of the difficulty of storing it on a large scale. The fate of Samuel Insull, who developed a prosperous empire from one of the companies founded by Edison, reminds us of this: his lifeless body found in the Paris metro in 1938 was first mistaken for that of a tramp. In the early hours of the history of the “electric fairy”, fortunes were made and quickly undone. Today, marginal pricing mechanisms are the basis for the organization of markets in which power plants are called according to the “order of merit”. But Jacques Percebois warns us that the development of renewable sources ultimately condemns this pricing method because it would lead to zero (or even negative) prices: when history sheds light on the future …

The reader will find in this gallery many other portraits, from Lavoisier to Enrico Mattei who takes us into the gas epic, from Rudolph Diesel to Mohammad Mossadegh in that of oil, without forgetting the economist Jevons whose portrait introduces the chapter on coal, nor Conrad Kilian discoverer of oil in the Sahara, who died in suspicious conditions in Grenoble : the opportunity for Jacques Percebois to tell us the tortuous history of French oil exploration and the premises of the constitution of Total, today one of the top five oil companies in the world.

Let’s end this review with the other female figure in the gallery: Lise Meitner. This high-flying physicist was a collaborator of the chemist Otto Hahn but had to leave Berlin in 1938 because of her Jewish origins. She pursued a clandestine collaboration with the chemist and contributed to the discovery of nuclear fission. The work then gives us a masterful history of the links between science and the emergence of civil and military nuclear power in the 20th century. All of the scholar’s erudition appears here. But the reader is also taken by a real empathy towards Lise Meitner, this Jewish scientist excluded from the Nobel Prize. The academic significance of Jacques Percebois’ work was well known. In drawing up these touching portraits, his latest book reveals a great talent as a narrator. 

Christian de Perthuis, Climate Economics Chair Founder

[1] Jacques Percebois, « L’énergie racontée à travers quelques destins tragiques» Editions Campus Ouvert, 2020