Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Emilie Made Voltaire Look Dumb, And He Adored Her

In 1733, in France, twenty-seven year old Emilie Du Chatelet, a married aristocrat, met the almost forty year old Voltaire and became his lover. She had been married off young, French style, to an older aristocrat who could prove four hundred years of aristocratic blood. She'd provided the requisite heirs, and both husband and wife were then free to pursue love wherever they could find it.

She found it in the arms of one of the great intellectual giants of the French Enlightenment, a sometimes hunted man, due to his forward thinking views, which he took little trouble to conceal. A highly educated woman, in a country where women were never educated, Emilie spoke five languages, and studied math with two of the greatest mathematicians in world history, Johann Bernoulli and Clairaut.

She was the first woman to have a scientific paper published by the Paris Academy of Sciences, which sponsored a competition one year to determine the nature of heat, light and fire. Voltaire spent millions, in today's dollars, buying equipment to heat, weigh and take the temperature of molten metals. He broke a lot of thermometers and learned very little.

Emilie got busy with her pencils and calculated that, if light was moving at a billion feet per second, than, if light was a particle, even the most infinitesimal quantity of it bombarding the earth would destroy all living beings. She dared advance the startling and unheard of idea that "light was something that had no mass at all." Further, she had plans to repeat Newton's experiments with the prism, in which he'd separated white light into colors, except Emilie was going to put thermometers in each of the different colors of the rainbow lights, hypothesizing that "different colors of light would carry different amounts of heating power." Eighty years elapsed before anyone got around to trying this, thus discovering infrared light.

Emilie did not get to carry this experiment out, because Voltaire had to make a hasty exit to escape arrest by the King for advancing anti Church and anti Royalist ideas.

From Wikipedia: "In 1749, the year of her death, she completed the work regarded as her outstanding achievement: her translation into French, with her commentary, of Newton's 'Principia Mathematica', including her derivation of the  notion of conservation of energy from its principles of mechanics. Published ten years after her death, today du Chatelet's translation of Principia Mathematica is still the standard translation of the work into French."

She made the translation, and discovered the notion of the conservation of energy all while pregnant at forty-three years old. She died a few days after the birth of her child. It was not Voltaire's child, but another man's, for Voltaire was by then much older and not an attentive lover.

I suppose what strikes me so forcibly about Emilie's story is the idea of this brilliant woman enduring a dangerous, late stage pregnancy, while translating, from Latin into French, Newton's book of mathematics, in which he introduces calculus to the world. Calculus is tough for the best of us, under any circumstances, but she mastered it while pregnant and in her forties. Seems to me Emilie is proof that women need never apologize that they don't appear in the history books quite as often as men. Having babies either left them with little time for creating works of prodigious scholarship, or ended their lives prematurely.

The only reason we remember Emilie's achievements is that, obviously, she was an extraordinary prodigy, who overcame all the immense hurdles, natural and cultural, that so often stand in the way of outstanding female accomplishments.

"I shall await you, quietly
In my meridian
     in the fields of Cirey
Watching one star only
Watching my Emilie"

Voltaire "Ode"

The quotes are from the book "Passionate Minds" by David Bodanis. A book about two incredibly daring, intelligent and passionate people, both of whom changed the world in very great ways. It's an entertaining as well as informative book, well worth a reading.

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