Sunday, January 14, 2007

Marquise du Châtelet

A few years ago I was researching a book about Einstein when I stumbled on a footnote about an obscure Frenchwoman of the early 18th century. Her name was Emilie du Châtelet; according to the note, she had played some role in developing the modern concept of energy, and had aquired a certain notoriety in her day.

It left me intrigued, and hungry to know more. And what I discovered, as I tracked down her letters and books over the next few months, astounded me. Because that footnote had understated her significance entirely. Emilie du Châtelet had played a crucial role in the development of science. What's more, she had had a wild life.

Thus starts this Guardian article by David Bodanis, who based it on his own Passionate Minds: The Great Enlightenment Love Affair, a biography of the Marquise du Châtelet with a focus on her relationship with Voltaire; (Guardian review is here).

I read this article when it appeared last May, but somehow failed to link to it at that time. This morning, I happened to see the Scientific American review of another biography of Marquise du Châtelet: La Dame D'Esprit: A Biography of The Marquise Du Châtelet by Judith P. Zinsser. [NYTimes review here].

By far the best short account of Marquise du Châtelet is this PhysicsWeb article by Patricia Fara who, rightly and thankfully emphasizes her formidable contributions to science and the kind of discrimination she faced in the 18th century French society.

According to Francois-Marie Voltaire - Enlightenment France's great writer and philosopher - Emilie du Châtelet "was a great man whose only fault was being a woman". Du Châtelet has paid the penalty for being a woman twice over. In her own lifetime she fought for the education and the publishing opportunities that she craved. Since her death, she has been cast in the shadow of two men - Voltaire, with whom she lived and studied, and Isaac Newton, whose work she criticized and interpreted. Her translation from Latin of Newton's Principia, his great work on gravity, remains the only complete version in French.

One thing in Fara's article strike you immediately: the first major book the marquise collaborated on -- Elements of Newton's Philosophy -- was published under the sole authorship of Voltaire. Her second book -- Foundations of Physics -- was published anonymously. She finished her third book -- the French translation of Newton's Principia -- just before her death six days after she gave birth to her second daughter; this book was published ten years later. As all the articles make clear, this is still the most definitive French translation of Principia.

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Here's something that Voltaire wrote to Du Châtelet shortly after he met her:

You are beautiful
spaceso half the human race will be your enemy
You are brilliant
spaceand you will be feared
You are trusting
spaceand you will be betrayed ...