Sunday, August 26, 2012

163: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emilie du Chatelet

Dear Followers,

The last few blogs have focused on modern-day high achievers. So, for a change of pace I'd like to introduce you to an amazing woman who was born in 1706, and is considered to be the first (and much-admired) female mathematician and physicist. She also translated Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica into French; although it was published ten years after her death in 1759, her translation is still considered the standard French edition of Newton's work.

Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Chatelet was born on the 17th of December, 1706, in Paris. She was the only daughter of six children, but only three of her brothers lived to adulthood. Her father was a member of the lesser French Nobility, and was responsible for introducing foreign ambassadors to King Louis XIV. Every Thursday writers and scientists attended his private salon, and researchers believe that it was this exposure that helped Emilie develop an interest in and aptitude for the sciences.

By the time she was ten years old, her father recognized that Emilie was a gifted child, and he encouraged her sense of intellectual curiosity (4: Supportive Someone). He arranged for a member of the French Academie des Sciences to visit their home and tutor Emilie about astronomy (2: An Early Sense Of Direction).

Obviously, her childhood was very different from that of most young girls of that time. In addition to exposing her to adult scientific conversation, he also made sure that she took part in physical activities like fencing and horseback riding. A variety of tutors were brought to the house to continue her education, and by the time she was twelve years old she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German, in addition to (of course) French. At the same time, she was being tutored in literature, mathematics and science, which she loved. Historians say that her mother strongly opposed her father's desire to have a well educated daughter, and tried to have Emilie sent to a convent as a way to stop her education (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). 

In addition to all of her other activities, Emilie also liked to dance, played the harpsichord, and sang opera (9: Music). And when she was a teenager, in order to get more money for books that she wanted to buy, but couldn't afford, she even used her mathematical skills to create successful strategies for gambling (8: Turning No into Yes).

Obviously talented, Emilie was not considered a great beauty. One of her cousins wrote about the awkward teenager, "She was a colossus in all her limbs--a marvel of strength and a prodigy of clumsiness. She had terrible feet and formidable limbs." (6: Life Is Not A Beauty Pageant)

In 1725, the 18 year old Emilie married the 30 year old Marquis - who remained her husband for life, and the father of their three children. Their third child was born in 1733, when she was 26, and after his birth she reentered society and returned to her mathematical studies. She was tutored in algebra and calculus by Maupertuis before her marriage, and by the brilliant Clairaut after 1735 (4: Supportive Someone). 

Emilie was not allowed to sit in the King's library at the Louvre because she was female, and she was also denied entrance to Gradot's coffeehouse, where scholars met to discuss science and mathematical information. Determined to be included, she dressed like a man, and because the others admired her brilliance she was allowed to join their discussion (13: More Than Meets The Eye).

Emilie and her husband (like many couples of their rank and era) had an open marriage. She had met Voltaire in 1729, but four years later their friendship developed into something much deeper. With her husband's approval, Emilie and Voltaire lived together in her country home where they both studied physics and wrote scientific articles. In 1937 she published a paper about the science of fire, and even predicted what is known today as "infrared radiation." In 1740, her book Lessons In Physics was written as an introduction to science and philosophy for her thirteen year old son.

At one point in her life, she lost 84,000 francs (more than one million dollars in today's currency) while gambling in a card game (11: Risk Addiction). In order to pay back the debt she devised a financial arrangement much like our modern derivatives, which was unusual for that time.

Early in her marriage, Emilie had an affair with the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, possibly because she spent much of her time in Paris while her husband was away on Garrison duty. Then, in 1748, perhaps disillusioned by both her husband and her arrangement with Voltaire (15: Forget About Prince Charming), she began an affair with a poet and became pregnant. She confided to a friend that she feared she wouldn't survive the pregnancy, and a week after her daughter was born, she died from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 42. Her daughter died 18 months later.

In addition to her famous translation of Newton's work, she wrote and translated a wide variety of articles and monographs (7: Magnificent Obsession), from Oedipus Rex, Fable of the Bees, Institution de Physique and Discours sur le Bonheur. In a letter she wrote to Frederick the Great of Prussia, she said "Judge me for my own merits, or my lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage...I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do...when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one."

Looking forward to your comments...

1 comment:

  1. That's really cool. I wouldve loved to meet her. Sounds like someone all of us could look up too. She reminds me a little of Sophie Germain. Do you know of her? Thank you for writing these blogs. It's a really cool way to learn about women who've succeeded.