In the Nov. 18 virtual episode of CalTech’s “Behind the Book,” viewers are invited to eavesdrop as author and photographer Carolyn Campbell and CalTech professor Jed Buchwald channel three Parisian scientists who are buried in Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery.
The 5 p.m. episode is called “Conversations with the Scientists in Père-Lachaise Cemetery.”
Campbell has recently published “City of Immortals: Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris,” a book filled with photographs of the famous cemetery that reveals the history and “interviews” dead artists who are buried there.
The questions are Campbell’s, but the answers are things the artists said while alive, based on exhaustive research that included autobiographies, biographies and interviews.
When she was planning to visit the cemetery, a British friend was worried the restless spirits would harm her. The book relates the story of what he did to protect her — it includes chicken blood and champagne — and its effect on her first visit to the famous park.
The “interviews” in her book feature Sidonie-Gabrielle Collette, Frederic Chopin, Jim Morrison, Honore de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Amadeo Modigliani and Isadora Duncan.
“There were so many I could have opted for,” Campbell said. “There were so many fascinating stories. I started reading, and my assignment was to read every biography I could of the people on my top 10 list. I must have read about seven books on Oscar Wilde alone.”
Her research enabled her to write easy-to-read, engaging interviews with her subjects.
“A lot of people thought, ‘That’s pretty brazen of you to contact all these spirits,’ but I felt I had read enough and, in some cases, interviewed family members,” Campbell said.
She interviewed Oscar Wilde’s grandson, met the manager of Morrison’s the Doors and felt that she could take liberties about asking some challenging questions.
She said her priority was to be respectful, not to dig in the dirt.
Team selected three
She said there are more than 70,000 people buried in Père-Lachaise. It’s why she was thrilled to be invited to the CalTech “Behind the Book” episode and be introduced to Buchwald.
“I want people to know that I wasn’t ignoring the scientists,” Campbell said. “It was hard to pare down just the list of artists.”
A history professor, Buchwald studies science’s backstory. He has written six books on the topic, and at CalTech he teaches courses on ancient civilization, the origins of religion and the history of physics.
Campbell and Buchwald came up with a list of 10 to 20 scientists and narrowed it down to three that they would “channel” in the “Behind the Book” episode. Campbell will ask the questions, and Buchwald, who has written books about many scientists, will play the part of the scientists and answer the questions.
They chose astronomer Jérôme Lalande; mathematician, physicist and historian Joseph Fourier; and decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphics Jean-François Champollion.
“These three more or less are at the same period of time and intersected, if not directly, then their actions and what they did with other people in the period during and right after the French Revolution,” Buchwald said.
All have ties to Napoleon. And all, Buchwald said, were interesting in their own way. Some spoke out about atheism in the late 18th century, while others were womanizers or ate fried insects.
“Lalande was a rather notorious, well-respected astronomer,” Buchwald said. “He was something of a womanizer but was among the few who supported women in science, including his niece whom he hired to do astronomical calculations. He was a complex and interesting character.”
Bonaparte links between
“They all had this very close link to Napoleon,” Campbell said. “Without Napoleon, there would be no Père-Lachaise.”
Napoleon founded Père-Lachaise. He sponsored a competition for engineers to solve the problem Paris was experiencing of too many dead bodies for churches to handle and religious cemeteries spitting up corpses.
While the church did not approve of a civic cemetery, there was little they could do to stop it and the 107-acre Père-Lachaise was born.
In their “Behind the Book” episode, Campbell and Buchwald will touch on the controversies and peculiarities of the scientists’ lives, the significance of their discoveries and the role that Napoleon played in science and culture during the French Revolution and the Restoration.
Campbell and Buchwald have had several discussions about how the episode will go, and Campbell has been reading up on the scientists.
“It won’t be a script,” Buchwald said. “Carolyn and I will talk a bit. I have to channel these guys. She’ll come up with questions, and I will try to respond as if I am these characters.”
Buchwald said they’ll do about 10 minutes of dialog for each scientist.
After spending years researching the artists of Père-Lachaise, Campbell said she is delighted to spread out to the scientists. She hopes it is an episode that will entertain viewers of the series and encourage them to travel.
“Hopefully, now that the borders are open, they’ll travel to Paris,” Campbell said. “I suspect there will be a few Francophiles in the audience. When they do visit, this is the world’s most famous cemetery. I hope that they’ll take in a broader view of what this place of rest is, what it offers to people and take time to contemplate and to think of all the contributions that these people have left behind.”
“Conversations with the Scientists in Père-Lachaise Cemetery,” “Behind the Book” Series w/Carolyn Campbell and Jed Buchwald
WHEN: 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18
COST: Free, but registration required at