Tuesday 24 March 2009

Émilie, marquise du Châtelet

I won't try to repeat what you can easily read about Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet except in the briefest of manner. She published her own highly technical Institutions de physique exploring the work of Leibniz on space, time and force, and her translation of Newton's Principia Mathematica as well as numerous scientific papers. She corresponded with Leibniz, Bernoulli, Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke and Frederick the Great of Prussia. She conducted experiments on the nature of light and radiation and the conservation of energy. She was the only woman that the decidedly unmathematical Voltaire ever found whose intelligence matched his own, and he became her devoted lover for fifteen years. They read each other's works and their comments can be found in the margins of their manuscripts. She used her mathematical skills at the card table in Versailles when they ran out of money. Together they collected a library of 21,000 books.

She was an example of a woman intelligent enough to recognize the hypocritical rules of social conduct were for other people, to refuse to accept convention, and to want to make an impact on the world. To this end, she had a plan and worked at it throughout her life, without giving up her passion for life and for love, and her conscious pursuit of happiness.

Emilie de Châtelet was a sharp-witted woman with raven hair and deep black eyes, easy and polite in conversation. I met her once at her Chateau de Cirey and she told me when she was young, her father trained her to fence and ride, and that she sang opera and enjoyed acting in Voltaire's productions on their own Little Theatre that still stands today.

While the other women of her day studied men, she studied books. I have always deplored not the injustice of societies that maintain inequal opportunity for men and women, but the profound human wealth these practices squander. How many women with minds as quick as Emilie's have been buried by their fathers and husbands and childbirth, or drowned in the tides of social censure? Emilie was born with the position, wealth and good fortune to rise to intellectual heights: these were gifts she recognized and did not waste.


Osprey said...

Well done. I look forward to reading the contributions of others for this challenge.

Enjah Mysterio said...

thank you Young, I had not heard of this remarkable woman ...

hba said...

I third the others - I'd never heard of her and loved discovering her through your eyes.

It horrifies me just how much potential the human race wastes - not just through gender prejustice, but through a myriad of ways.

I yearn for an impossible Star Trek type utopian future where humans can shine. Unfortunately my work in urban regeneration makes it hard to beleive that such a future will be possible in any timeframe I'll see the end of :(