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The Intellectual Dandy Who Brought Newton's Theories to France

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Newton wasn't the only person with ideas about gravity. People from all over had their pet theories, including René Descartes, who had the home town advantage in France. That is, until an intellectual lush decided to change that.

Émilie Du Châtelet did everything with gusto and style, including adultery. At twenty-seven, she met famed author Voltaire, and began an affair that lasted fifteen years and seemed to be fully endorsed by her husband. This might have been because Voltaire contributed to sprucing up the run-down Châtelet estate. Émilie certainly didn't have money for it. She spent her cash on math tutors.


Passionately interested in nearly everything, she spent her days working and studying. She and Voltaire individually conducted experiments on the nature of fire. She wrote an examination of the Bible and a treatise on the nature of happiness. She also translated a strange morality tale, Fable of the Bees, into French, expanding and changing it along the way. (In the story, a prosperous colony of bees spends its time grumbling that the colony itself is too corrupt. The colony is cursed by Jove and forced into honesty, at which point it becomes impoverished.) To get access to a famous cafe where mathematicians discussed their ideas, she dressed as a man. She did this not to actually pass as a man, but to protest the idea that women couldn't be admitted. She bet that they would turn away a woman who was in a dress, but would not dare to turn away a woman wearing pants, and she was right.


Her most impressive work, though, was bringing Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica to France. Many French people at the time subscribed to Decartes' theory of gravitation. Descartes believed that objects were attracted to each other because of the movement of the aether. The aether occasionally had gaps, or vacuums, he claimed, and so the ethereal stuff rushed in to fill those gaps. The material rushing in would gain momentum circling the gap, and so the aether would form whirlpools. Planetary motion was the result of those whirlpools.

Newton thought that was nonsense. If it were true, he argued, the planets would show some sign of drag in their motion. Châtelet agreed and decided to popularize Newton in France. She translated his greatest work twice. The first time, she translated it jointly with Voltaire. The book was a work of popular science, designed to sketch out Newton's ideas for the layman. Voltaire's was the only name on it, but he credited her in the introduction.

Either the lack of credit or the lack of specificity bothered Châtelet. She began again, translating the work directly, and getting across all the mathematics and science involved.

The work was published posthumously. Châtelet died in childbirth in her early forties. Which reminds us that even being a French aristocrat and scientist is not as good as being a first-world middle-class dummy today.


[Via Émilie Du Châtelet, History MCS, Passionate Minds.]