"Émilie du Châtelet explained Newton to the French." by Robyn Arianrhod.
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Émilie du Châtelet was a gifted mathematician and Voltaire’s mistress. Together they spearheaded Newton’s revolution in France.
Robyn Arianrhod, senior adjunct research fellow at the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University tells the tale.
A spirited debate raged in 18th century Europe about what was driving the movements of the planets. In England, Sir Isaac Newton and his followers said it was gravity: the same invisible force that propels a falling apple also commands the planets in their marvellously ordered paths.
On the other side of the Channel, many Continentals favoured René Descartes’ theory of a swirling cosmic “ether” that, like a celestial tornado, swept up the planets in its wake.
This disagreement is more than an historical curiosity – it went to the heart of what it takes for a proposition to qualify as a truly scientific theory.
An unlikely pair of champions helped win the victory for Newton in Continental Europe: France’s best known and most controversial playwright, Voltaire, and his lover, mathematician Émilie du Châtelet. Her scientific work includes what is still the definitive French translation of Newton’s Principia. Yet after her death she was all but forgotten. If she was remembered at all, her achievements were often belittled, lost in the shadow of the “great men” in her life. But modern-day historians have rediscovered Émilie, and her story is inspiring new generations of women mathematicians, myself included.
When Emilie moved to Cirey to join her lover, tongues wagged salaciously.
Born in Paris in 1706, she is surely the most glamorous female mathematician in history. Tall and aristocratic, passionate in both her intellectual and amorous pursuits, she was larger than life. Too large for most people at the time: too ambitious, too intellectual, too emotional and too sexually liberated. Too much of a feminist, too: she pulled no punches when writing of her struggle to educate herself in higher mathematics and physics (because girls were denied access to good schools, let alone universities): “If I were king,” she wrote, “I would reform an abuse which effectively cuts back half of humanity. I would have women participate in all human rights, and above all, those of the mind.”
At 26, she captivated Voltaire, who was seduced by her brains as well as her beauty. He was already notorious as an upstart commoner with a wicked wit. Émilie, by contrast, was born to the aristocratic life; her father had been chief of protocol at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles. She’d been married off at 18 to the Marquis du Châtelet, with whom she soon had three children. Having done their duty for the Châtelet line, she and her husband then lived relatively separate lives – a common situation in aristocratic families. Less common was the remarkable friendship that developed between husband and wife, so that ultimately the marquis supported not only Émilie’s unusual ambition, but also her passionate relationship with Voltaire. Taking a lover was the norm at that time of arranged marriages, but Émilie and Voltaire scandalised polite society when they set up house together: extra-marital love affairs were supposed to be discreet dalliances, not alternative marriages. Curiously, their domestic arrangement – and their role as Newtonian revolutionaries – were as interconnected as the mysteries of the cosmos they set out to explain.