Happy Birthday Émilie the Marquise du Châtelet!
December 17, 2022
Edge of Yesterday celebrates the 316th birthday of French mathematician, physicist, translator, and philosopher Émilie du Châtelet, whose contributions to Newtonian theory and mission to make scientific literature more accessible helped clear the path for modern physics.
Émilie du Châtelet was born Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil in Paris on this day in 1706. Raised in an aristocratic household, du Châtelet learned avidly from the distinguished scientists and mathematicians who found their way to her father’s home in Paris and at Versailles. When her father lost his job as chief diplomat to King Louis XIV and the family’s source of income, she complemented her formal math and science studies by gambling at Court in fencing and winning at cards. Thanks to her earnings, she could continue her lessons, including in languages. She learned six languages by age 12.
Despite society’s discouragement of women pursuing the sciences, Châtelet broke convention. Châtelet’s magnum opus came in 1740 with the anonymous publication of “The Foundations of Physics,” a work of natural philosophy that married Newtonian physics with metaphysics. Her work played an instrumental role in the acceptance of Newtonian physics across Europe. Albeit anonymously, Châtelet continued to revolutionize physics by translating “Principia,” Newton’s manifesto for the laws of motion and gravity. Published after her untimely death in childbirth in 1749, hers remains the leading French translation to this day.
After her death, she was entombed in a beautiful Baroque Catholic church in Lunéville, France. There is no recognition of who lies beneath the ground. The black stone is blank; it doesn’t even show her name. This brilliant woman, controversial even in her own day, deserves our attentions and accolades for her pathbreaking accomplishments in science, mathematics and philosophy at a time when women, even noblewomen, were considered their husbands’ property.
Read an interview with this “daring woman of the Enlightenment” at the Edge of Yesterday, and check out the newest book in the Edge of Yesterday pantheon featuring the Marquise, Voltaire and modern teen STEAMinista Charley Morton in Find Me in the Time Before.
Joyeux anniversaire, Émilie! Here’s to an unstoppable force in the progression of physics!