France, Femme and Physics
'a great man who's only fault was being a woman'
Phoebe Jarvis | 28 March 2017

Wednesday 8th March 2017: International Women’s Day. It seems an apt time to mention a pioneering female within science; a line of work for which we have seen one of the largest expansions in breaking the glass ceiling in this decade. Yet who were the women that really shaped science and mathematics? At first, you may want to pay courtesy to Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin, both women who undoubtedly engraved the course of science through their outstanding discoveries and works of great achievement and rigour, yet arguably their names already hold place in your mind (or on your periodic table).

Perhaps, however, it was Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet that slipped from your tongue. I doubt it, simply because by the time it would have taken you to have said her name alone, Bill Gates would have earned another $1,250, 8666 more snapchats would have been sent and 500,000 more chemical reactions would have taken place in every single cell of your body. All clearly more pressing issues than a 17th century French aristocrat with some vague claim to intellectual fame. Yet I put it to you that this should provide ever greater reason for her recognition and remembrance on this day.

So what has she done to be accredited for? Du Châtelet is most highly documented for her translation of (posthumous) Sir Issac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, for which her work and commentary is still considered the standard translation of the paper, i.e. one of the most influential papers ever written in classical physics made accessible to the masses of influential scientists to come. Not many people are familiar with the fact she was the first person to hypothesise the existence of infrared radiation! Later discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1800, sixty years prior to this du Châtelet wrote in her book Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu about the nature of fire and the mechanical properties that she observed, providing strong stimulus for Herschel’s later findings. Furthermore, whilst translating Newton’s Principia Mathematica, du Châtelet also recognised that Newton assumed total conservation of energy to be indistinct from momentum. She provided strong experimental evidence to disprove this previous misconception and subsequently contributed her findings to the Newtonian mechanics that she documented.

Yet she was not only a keen scientist. Emilie du Châtelet was also an influential philosopher of her time, arguing that the conformation of knowledge is achieved through experience. Such a thesis was highly contradictory to the Thinking Matter works of the famous philosopher John Locke, against whom she also debated the relative nature of human knowledge according to the universal presupposition. This suggested that if it is presumed that there is no real beginning to the universe, all knowledge we have must be relative. But occasionally, her non-scientific work touched upon the social role of women and their education; she would be proud to know that 165 years after her death, women would be celebrated and encouraged to thrive against prevailing stereotype across the globe.

In their own right, these discoveries are nothing short of phenomenal. But they become even more powerful knowing that du Châtelet was self-educated and the genius, critical thinker she became was to be the product of her own interdisciplinary study and her own self-driven interests in many aspects of education. The patriarchal boundaries against female intellects at the time provided more and more irrational obstacles that prevented her being cited quite as much as she owned the right to. No better described is the prejudice she faced than that proposed by the French Enlightenment writer and historian Voltaire who referred to Châtelet in a letter as “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”.

Some of the greatest men in science and philosophy owe their achievements to this fault.


Image sourced under Creative Commons License.

James Routledge 2016