Ladies of the Laboratory 3: The Scientific Slut–Émilie du Châtelet

December 31, 2009 at 12:12 AM 1 comment

Written by Lewis D. Eigen

There is one marvelous scientist who, in the 18th century, not only brought the new mathematics and physics of Isaac Newton to much of France, but also found and corrected some errors that Newton had made—overturning erroneous physics principles that then had general scientific concurrence.  The scientist was a woman–Émilie du Châtelet.  And yet even many of the modern feminists who have sought to give female scientists due recognition, tend to avoid using this scientist as an example.  The reason is that by modern contemporary standards, she was a slut—a sexual libertine.  She was a little too liberated.  This article is not only about her, but about the culture that to this day inhibits recognition of a female scientist because of her personal sexual predilections—having nothing to do with science.

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, 1706-1749, was a noblewoman of France, the Marquise du Châtelet.  A woman of the enlightenment, Émilie du Châtelet, as a young girl, had two brothers and her father, a major figure at the French Royal Court allowed her to participate with the same tutors who taught her brothers,  She soon learned English, Latin, Greek, and Italian and studied the great scholars of the enlightenment— Tasso, Virgil, and Milton among others.   A better student than her brothers, she really was extraordinary in mathematics, science, and other “male subjects”.  So much so, that when a friend of her father’s recognized her capability, he persuaded her father to hire special tutors to teach her as she far surpassed her brothers and the regular tutors who were not, as most educated men were not, particularly learned in mathematics and science.

At the time, no French young women were educated at anything other than languages and classics.  Émilie not only excelled at subjects women never studied, but she learned and excelled at other “manly skills” such as riding and fencing.  She shocked her brothers friends and later more than a few suitors by fencing with a naked blade and usually besting them.  However, Émilie was also a very attractive young lady and was as good at the female arts of dressing, dancing, and flirting—the typical female skills of the day.  She played an instrument, sang, and took part in plays and dramas.  She was a major social success at balls and parties and was particularly attractive to men who she could charm and tease with the best of the females, but she could also have serious discussions with the men who were fascinated by a woman who could also partake with them on horseback or even with the sport of fencing.  She was the subject of a great deal of male attention, and was described by contemporaries as having a “passionate nature.”

For Émilie’s mother, her development was disturbing.  Émilie showed no interest in religion and spent most of her time being tutored, and studying, partying and flirting with boys and men.  Her mother decided that Émilie should be sent to a convent.  Fortunately for the young girl, women alone generally could not make any decisions in a family, so Émilie was saved from the convent by appealing to her father for whom she was his pride and joy.  However, her mother prevailed upon her father to marry her off, before she got into serious trouble.  At the time, marriages of the nobility were always arranged and Émilie’s was no exception.  When she was 19, she was married to the thirty-four-year-old Marquis du Châtelet, a wealthy nobleman and important military figure of France.

Émilie had had one very disappointing love affair before her marriage.  She was passionately in love with a man and after a brief affair, he dumped her to use the modern vernacular.  She was so depressed that she almost committed suicide.  However, she got over her depression.  She vowed that she would never become so emotionally dependent on a single man and although she had many male friends and lovers, she was never thereafter putting all her emotional eggs in a single basket so to speak.  The arranged marriage worked out as both parties obtained benefits from the relationship.  Émilie bore the Marquis 3 children including a male heir. At that time, this was her most important duty to fulfill.  Her husband was away a great deal and things worked out very well in that he had no objection to her academic pursuits and provided her with some of the great scientists and mathematicians of France to tutor her.  Somehow Émilie persuaded her husband to engage in affairs with other women and to allow her to do the same with men.  They were thus happily married until Émilie died.  The Marquis benefitted extensively.  His wife was a great conversationalist, a leading socialite, very sexually accomplished and was considered one of the leading social figures of the French Court where she always spoke well of him and furthered his interests as well as her own.  Most important, his children loved their mother and she personally not only took a hand in their education—highly unusual for a mother to educate a male child.  Not satisfied with the mathematics texts of the time, she personally wrote one for her son. 

Soon Émilie proved far more adept than her science and mathematics tutors who were themselves leading intellectual figures in France.  She drove them at a pace they were not used to and challenged them with very difficult questions and assignments.  For herself she only slept 2 or 3 hours a night and spent most of the early morning and day challenging her tutors. Instead of them leading the direction of the inquiry, it soon was she who was the acknowledged intellectual leader.  One of Émilie’s most significant tutors was Pierre Louis de Maupertuis, a renown mathematician and astronomer of the time.  Another was Samuel Koenig, with whom she had a running argument about the subject of the infinitely small numbers and measurements in physics.  Finally, Koenig felt so angry and intellectually abused that he not only quit, but their friendship ended forever over their disagreement about what was smallest possible thing that could be measured in the universe.

Émilie was a great role model for her children,  All day she was studying with her tutors while they were doing the same with the tutors she engaged for them.  Evenings after dressing involved dinner parties, dances, and a rage of the day in France—gambling.  At the time, the mathematics of gambling was not understood as it is today and there was no “house” with fixed odds.  Gamblers played against other players, and some won while others lost.  The Countess de Châtelet however had this extraordinary mathematical skill and education which she used.  She tended to almost always come away a winner.  The other players just guessed; she counted cards and calculated probabilities.  This money-making skill was very convenient for a woman who wanted total independence.  At the time, the husband controlled ALL the finances of the family, and a wife had to ask for money to buy a gown or anything else.  Émilie was so adept at gambling that she always had money for what she wanted personally.  Her husband paid the large expenses of the household and provided her with an “allowance”—the custom of the time. She “supplemented” her income, and spent much of the money on books, her favorite purchase.  She had all the jewelry she needed and most valued books—especially in mathematics and science.

Painting of Émilie du Châtelet

Émilie du Châtelet. This 18th century scientist was the only female scientist fully accepted by the male scientists of her time. Note the geometry volume and the mathematical compass in her right hand.

Soon the Countess de Châtelet was recognized as one of the major intellectuals of France.  This recognition came from the men, for there were no other female intellectuals in France at the time.  However at court, at parties and balls, she tended to seek out the learned scholars and scientists and engage them in conversation and discussion.  She had sexual affairs with Duc de Richelieu, Maupertius, Comte de Guébriant, Clairaut, and Jean François Saint-Lambert. They too sought her company as they were charmed by her sociability, captivated by her sexuality, and enlightened by her ideas and criticism.  One of the men who was attracted to her was the greatest of all the French intellectuals of the day, Voltaire.  The fascination was mutual and soon they two became close intellectual colleagues and lovers.  Émilie’s husband had a country estate, and the Countess, Voltaire and the children along with their tutors, spent a great deal of time there.  The Marquis when his responsibilities allowed, joined them, and the three lived as a “manage de trios,” a sexual relationship of three people where both men enjoyed the social, intellectual and sexual favors of the woman.

Mostly however it was just Voltaire and Émilie at the Cirey country estate.  One of the servants described the scene:

“Mme du Châtelet passed the greater part of the morning with her writings, and did not like to be disturbed. When she stopped work, however, she did not seem to be the same woman. The serious air gave place to gaiety and she gave herself up with the greatest enthusiasm to the delights of the society.”

Voltaire whose greatest intellectual skill was as a philosopher—generally recognized as the best in the world in that era—had become very interested in the new works of the German mathematician Leibnitz and the English scientist, Isaac Newton.  Émilie too had become totally engrossed in the mathematics and physics of these two men.  Hardly any people could understand the new mathematics that each of them had developed.  Émilie was one of the few to realize that they both—in totally different ways—had come upon the same thing—calculus or the mathematical study of the infinitely small, a subject with which she had been fascinated ever since she broke with her tutor because of her insistence on focusing on the infinitely small variations of motion as bodies changed direction, bounced off each other, or were attracted to each other.  Months and months Émilie and Voltaire spent going over the work of the two scientific innovators, and the more they understood, the more they realized that science and mathematics would never be the same.  This was not only an advance in science, but a huge leap in the way that mankind could contemplate and visualize the universe.  Émilie was particularly interested in the implications for physics and astronomy which was now reduced to physics by the new mathematics.  However, she was troubled by one aspect of Newton’s work.  Specifically, Newton had showed that the energy of a falling body was proportional to its velocity.  This had been “known” for some time by the scientists of France, England, Germany and elsewhere.  However, it did not comport with either her intuition or her analysis.  On this subtle point, Voltaire was a little out of his league and could neither show her that she was wrong nor support the idea that she might be right.

The French Academy of Sciences is notoriously the historical emblem of ignorant sexism in the sciences.  This august, prestigious, learned, and supposedly rational institution of scientists was incredibly irrational and almost maniacal in its bias against females in the sciences.  Over a hundred years later, even after the great Marie Curie became the only scientist who ever won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science, she would not be admitted as a member.  For years, women would not only be prohibited from speaking or publishing, but they could not even attend the Academy meetings and listen.  However, the rules of society in general, and the French scientific society in particular, never seemed to apply to Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet and the Enlightenment was an unusual period of history.

She was the first woman to be published by the Académie Royale des Sciences with her 1739 Dissertation Sur la Nature du Feu.  Perhaps what was so remarkable about this incredible achievement was that it was not even considered at the time to be unusual or remarkable, and it was not controversial.  The Countess, or the “Divine Émilie” as she was called, was known by virtually every scientist in France as a result of her social prowess at Court and on the social circuit of the day.  She had discussed science with them at party after party, dinner by dinner.  For most women in science, their work became the vehicle by which male scientists came to know them.  If the women were fortunate, that would transcend the sexist barrier and allow them to develop personal, professional relationships with the men. In Émilie’s case, the order was reversed.  She had the opportunity to know and relate to the leading scientists and other intellectuals socially, personally and intellectually BEFORE she produced and serious work of her own.  The combination of her intellect, education, studies, social skills, social access, noble title and sexuality all made her a known and respected figure amongst the scientists of France—then arguably the leading center of science and intellectuality in the world.  When the society published her paper, she was already accepted as one of the “in group.”  So no one was surprised even though it had never happened before that a woman’s scientific work was published.

At this time, scientific publications by anyone were few.  Each publication was carefully read by all the scientists of the society and others who aspired to such.  150 years later French scientists and historians would marvel that a woman was actually published by the French scientific society at the time.  However, that was not the most dramatic breaking of the glass scientific ceiling with the remarkable history of Divine Émilie.  In an event that has not even been duplicated in modern times, Émilie achieved the kind of recognition that few scientists and no women ever since received in a scientific society.  The most dramatic event for scientists of that day—and often still today—is when two great scientists face off, “mano y mano” in public debate on a major scientific issue.  One protagonist was the Permanent Secretary of the Académie Royale des Sciences, Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, the leading scientist of the leading scientific nation of the world.  The subject was the mathematics of energy.  The energy of a falling body for example when it hit the ground was proportional to the velocity (speed) and not to the mass (weight).  Objects fell at the same speed regardless of the weight.  These were generally accepted truths believed earlier, and Newton had just reasserted them in his great Principia.  However, Mairan’s debating opponent argued that Newton (and most of the other scientists of France and Europe) were wrong on this point.  The alternative claim was that the energy was proportional to the square of the velocity.  This boiled down to which of two equations properly described the real world:

Newton’s was E=mv, where E is the energy and v, the velocity and m is a constant depending on the situation.  The alternative was E=mv2.  The scientist in the great debate who was to argue the latter was The Countess de Châtelet.  Never before or since has the leading male scientist of a nation, under auspices of the leading scientific academy, entered into a public scientific debate with a woman.  Ironically, the place of Émilie Châtelet was so unique in French intelligencia, that there appears to have been no historical record of much gender controversy.  No feminist firsts were noted.  No precedents were claimed to be set by the French Academy though they certainly were.  It was just a major scientific debate on one of the most important scientific issues of the time (and in the development of physics) and that is what the French scientists—males all but one—gathered to discuss.  However, the debate itself was very contentious with just about every French intellectual with an interest in science taking sides afterwards.  Most sided with de Mairan who after all represented the traditional and established view.  Philosophically it was Newton’s work that argued for the basic proportionality.  Leibnitz’s approach however would lead Emily to the proportionality to the square option.  One interesting historical tidbit is that Voltaire, Émilie Châtelet’s close friend, colleague, lover, and housemate sided against her in this great debate.  Intellectually, this group of intellectuals were as objective as it got.  Intellectually, scientists argue against their close friends frequently.  Einstein and his closest colleagues used to be on different sides of many issues.  Émilie was treated like all the other intellectuals—in a sense the highest compliment.  She was given no slack by most and would be intellectually attacked frequently.  Some of the attacks of scientists on their opposition got mean and nasty, and the only woman involved was not spared the nasty references, common at the time.  Some modern feminists see this as sexism, especially when analogies were made to her rash decision making by riding so dangerously or her romantic inclinations.  However, here she was, in this exalted position that few men would ever attain.  If there were serious sexism that blocked her, she never would have been allowed into the debate much less being one of the two protagonists.  The Japanese have a saying:  “The nail that stick up, gets hit with the hammer.”

Émilie du Châtelet was even recognized outside of France.  In the 1740’s and 1750’s there was a publication in Germany—the Décade d’Augsbourg. It was a German “Who’s Who”.  Along with most of the other famous scientists of Europe, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet was described as a major intellectual of France.  The sexist rules of Europe itself did not seem to apply to this remarkable woman.

History provides us with few details of the debate itself.  We do not know who persuaded whom and how many people ended up on each side.  We can assume that the Divine Émilie was dressed in one of her finest gowns showing a great deal of cleavage.  And probably a few of the male scientists favored her position because they were infatuated with her.  But the issue was very serious and fundamental.  The debate took place based on mathematics and theory.  However, the issue, like all scientific issues, was not resolved by a debate.  Scientific truth cannot be determined by popularity of people or ideas.  Both sides of the debate realized that only one of the equations could describe reality in the world and not both.  The purpose of scientific debate is to stimulate scientific thinking about the problem, not to resolve an issue.  The issue must eventually move from the theoretical physics domain to the experimental.  And that is just what The Marquise du Châtelet did; she shifted her attention to the design of experiments that might resolve the issue.  She didn’t need a grant or a scholarship to pay for the experimental apparatus and technicians and artisans to fabricate it.  Her husband was wealthy, and if she wanted more money, she could always hit the gambling tables and win money from fellow aristocrats who thought they were playing games of pure chance.

The experiments that she designed would allow balls of different masses (weights) and sizes to be dropped from particular heights into a bed of special sand.  The sand was of the consistency that it would be displaced somewhat by the falling balls.  The volume of the crater the ball made, was a measure of the energy.  Clearly the heavier balls displaced more sand than lighter balls dropped from the same height.  But when the same ball was dropped from different heights the crater was larger when the ball was dropped from a greater height and landed at a higher velocity.  The crater was always a section of a sphere that could be measured geometrically.  The volume of the sphere section was proportional to the energy.  So the question was, would the displaced sphere section volume be proportional to the velocity (speed) at impact (easily calculated thanks to Newton) or to the SQUARE of the speed of impact.  Émilie made many drops and measures.  Soon it became clear that it was the SQUARE of the speed.  The data was clear, and the experiment in thousands of variations has been repeated ever since.  In addition, we now have more mathematical and theoretical knowledge so that this issue is not even a close call any more.  To the modern student of physics, it is obvious.

Émilie invited other scientists to observe the experimental procedure and soon the word went forth:  Newton was probably wrong on this point.  Most of the French and European scientists had also been wrong.  The sexy lady had been right.

Émilie had no trouble intellectually taking on the great Newton and most of the French scientific establishment and her closest friend and lover.  Unlike other female scientists who have discovered errors of male colleagues and agonized over presenting their data or mathematics for fear of possible being wrong or antagonizing male scientists, Émilie thought not a minute about the consequences.  She who would ride the most difficult and dangerous course on horseback, fence with a naked blade, enter into love affairs on a whim, was never intimidated by the possibility of failure.  She did not always succeed, but she was totally self-confident—sometimes obnoxiously so—which enabled her to be totally self-actualizing.  Ironically, although she had shown the great Newton to be wrong, the Countess was convinced that Newton’s work was the most important that affected science since the Ancient Greeks began inquiring about the world and the universe.  The fact that Newton had made this error did not in any way detract from the fact that as far as the Countess was concerned, he had not only made the largest breakthrough in the history of Physics but also his new mathematics—calculus—was the way of the future of all science.  The fact that Leibnitz had also arrived at calculus, albeit with different approaches, only made the, in her view, calculus more critical for scientists.  So, in 1740, she wrote her next major publication, Institutions de Physique on the criticality of the new mathematics of Newton and Leibnitz.  In effect she wrote a book for scientists that said

Without this new calculus, you can go nowhere in physics and probably not in any of the modern scientific fields.

She showed examples of why she believed calculus was so critical to science.  Her book itself whose thesis was not accepted by all, was persuasive to many and she became the leading non English acolyte for Newton’s new methodology for analyzing the world.  Surprisingly enough to most who assumed women were never accepted in the sciences, her book was so influential in Italy that the Italian Academy of Sciences made her a member, another first that no one noted as such.

There was a serious problem however that faced most of the French and other European scientists.  Calculus was not just a new set of mathematical techniques.  It was a different way of thinking about time and motion, forces and energy.  It was as radical then as Einstein’s Relativity would be 160 years later.  New thinking is hard intellectually.  Calculus was complex and hard to learn for most reasonably educated people.  (It is still avoided by most modern Americans going to high school and college.)  Newton’s Principia was written in English and while many educated French could speak passable English, reading it with such deep and complex content was difficult.  Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil was one of the few people who had mastered the new science and mathematics.  But most found it difficult if not impossible.  She then decided that she would do something about that.  She began her monumental work of translating Newton’s new science and mathematics into French.  Newton’s Principia was a huge work, and Émilie would spend the better part of the rest of her life finishing this effort.  .  Neither shy nor humble, Émilie du Châtelet also added several proofs and other “improvements” to her version of Newton’s great work.  Ironically, it was published just a short time after she died, and to this day, it is the classic version that French students and scholars use when they wish to study Newton’s original work.

In addition to her science work, The Marquise de Châtelet wrote some philosophy.  She authored the Introduction to Voltaire’s philosophical analysis of Newton’s work, and even had the audacity to write philosophically about her unusual views of sex and sexuality.  Discours Sur le Bonheur (written in 1746 and published in 1779), defended her love of sex and gambling and yet saw as more important the action of a woman in learning and studying.

“Of all the passions, the love of learning contributes the most to our [women’s] happiness. There is a passion from which an elevated soul is never entirely exempt, that of glory; learning is the only way to acquire glory for half of humanity, yet it is precisely this half which is deprived of the means of education, rendering impossible such a taste of glory.”

She also advised women about being overly dependent on relationships with individual men and arguing for what is even today considered a very modern, extreme feminist view of the permanency of male-female relationships.

“Let us … never allow our heart to keep the slightest flicker for someone whose interest diminishes and who has stopped loving us. You need to abandon your love some day, even if you haven’t aged, and that day must be when such love has stopped making you happy.”

Most people have heard little or nothing of Émilie du Châtelet as her life was cut tragically short by one of her foibles which for years kept future generations from learning a great deal about her.  She died at the age of 43 at the peak of her intellectual productivity.  Émilie du Châtelet was a promiscuous, sexual libertine, and when she was 42 years old she fell in love with a prominent courtier and poet– Jean François Saint-Lambert.  As independent as this brilliant, wealthy, noblewoman was, she did not have basic control over her own body.  There were no reliable methods of birth control then, nor was there a method of abortion that was not extremely dangerous to the life of the mother, unlike today.  Childbirth itself was quite dangerous in those days, especially for the mother  It was the major cause of death of adult women.  Émilie, and most educated French at the time, knew that childbirth after the age of 35 got progressively more dangerous for the mother.  Over 40 was extremely risky, unlike today when medical science has progressed so that in America and most of the industrial world women are safely giving birth even into their 50’s.  None the less, Émilie du Châtelet had her torrid affair with a minor French poet, and became pregnant.  Her relationships with the men in her life were such that she maintained excellent relations with most of them even when she was involved with others.  During her pregnancy, she was attended by three men in her household:  Her husband, Voltaire and her new lover and father of the coming child.  All knew that Émilie du Châtelet was in a dangerous situation.  Émilie herself, worked feverishly to finish her great translation of Newton before she gave birth.  She finally did just 6 days after she gave birth and the manuscript was sent off to the publisher—the Bibliothèque Nationale.  Voltaire documented the delivery of the baby.

“The little girl arrives while her mother was at her writing desk, scribbling some Newtonian theories, and the newly born baby was placed temporarily on a quarto volume of geometry, while her mother gathered together her papers and was put to bed.”

However, with a classic case of post partum infection, Émilie du Châtelet died shortly after finishing her translation and the child, the next day.  The three men were all distraught—especially Voltaire, who himself collapsed in grief and took a while to recover.  The great writer and philosopher is credited with the greatest quotations describing Émilie du Châtelet.

“Glory of her sex and of the century we live in, the goal of her work is to enlighten men.”

is one of his famous lines.  The other assessed Émilie du Châtelet in a way that no one else has ever been described.  During her lifetime Voltaire wrote to his friend. King Frederick II of Prussia,

“She is a great man whose only flaw is that she is a woman “.

 

Epilogue

The story of Émilie du Châtelet, in itself, is fascinating.  However, equally interesting is the behavior of modern science historians and feminists in how they deal with the facts of the past regarding Émilie du Châtelet.  In modern times many women have been ambivalent about female historical figures who have had what many people would perceive to be “loose moral standards and behavior” especially regarding sex.  In large part, the reason we study historical, scientific figures, rather than just their science, is that there is a hope that their lives and achievements may be inspirational to modern readers.  As a society we have tried to make heroes out of Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Fermi and many others.  Lately, such efforts have been also made with Marie Curie, Ida Noodak, Lisa Meitner and other women.  The hope is that they will serve as role models for young people, and in the case of female scientists, the aim is often to motivate modern young women to study and go into science as a profession, making needed contributions as well as diminishing the gross scientist, gender imbalance that exists in our contemporary society.  However, what happens when the great scientist has some foibles?  Generally, they are regarded by moderns as idiosyncrasies—matters of interest or curiosity but not particularly relevant to the scientist and the science.  A good example is the great Nobel Prize winning Physicist Richard Feynman.  His scientific achievements are legend, as are his service on the Presidential Commission Investigating the Challenger Disaster.  Feynman drove the chairman of the commission crazy with his idiosyncratic behavior, but he was the one, whose “out of the box” thinking and refusal to follow the agenda, led to the solution of what had caused the tragedy.  Feynman also had a very unorthodox set of sexual behaviors.  He did not marry, did not date women, but frequented prostitutes often.  His promiscuous sexual behavior was as frequent and indiscriminate as was that of Marquise du Châtelet.  She is thought of as the “scientific slut”, a free love radical and other derogatory descriptors.  Feynman is never described that way.  Sometimes his sexual predilection has been analyzed and seen by many as virtuous.  The logic is as follows:

Feynman was an intense theoretical physicist who was totally immersed in his work.  He had little time for family or a social life.  Besides, the only women he ever met and spent time with were his colleagues and students at the University.  For him to have sexual liaisons with students and colleagues who worked for him would have been very inappropriate—a form of sexual harassment.  The world needed his time to be spent on his research and he had little time for socialzing.  However, he was a normal male with sex drive and needs.  Patronizing prostitutes was a very sensible, creative solution to the problem.

Now no one ever attempted such a rationalization for Châtelet’s sexual promiscuity.  Even the great Marie Curie was intensely attacked and castigated when years after her husband had died, she had an affair with one of her male scientific colleagues.  It is easy to explain this as the classic sexual “double standard” that has usually existed regarding male and female sexuality.  But in recent years a number of feminist scientific historians have made major efforts to document and publicize the contributions of female scientists in history.  They would not be deterred by the double standard argument.  Indeed they write of Marie Curie very sympathetically and castigate the press and mores of 1911 when Curie was treated so shabbily.  But why not the same for Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil?  The Web has a number of feminist inspired websites extolling the accomplishments of female scientists.  But a number of them do not even mention The Countess de Châtelet.  Now it is unfortunately the case that significant female scientists in history have been very few.  It is not that there are many to use as role models and to avoid ambiguity and controversy, Emilie Châtelet can just be overlooked.  There is more to it than that.

We can understand though we decry those editors or writers who avoided Châtelet because they thought that schools and other institutions would come under too much public pressure, and if the materials and web sites are not used because of the Châtelet “immorality”, there will be no information about the other female scientists spread to the public—especially the younger girls in school.  However a number of these sites and books were written by strong feminists.  Here we must face the reality that the behavior of Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet not only is very offensive to many current religious moralists and even some secular humanists who argue for a monogamous society.  To them, she was a “slut who slept her way up the intellectual and scientific ladder.” However, her behavior, when analyzed against modern feminist norms was equally offensive.  She flirted, partied, and used “feminine wiles” to ingratiate herself with the male establishment.  She always dressed in provocative clothing revealing as much cleavage as possible.  She was very pretty and sexy.  However, she never argued that the male scientists of her day should treat other women as she was treated.  She did little or nothing for her “sisters” even when she was in influential positions.  She had the floor of the leading French scientific society and never mentioned sexism in science once.  All she talked about was Newton, Leibnitz and that energy was proportional to the square of the velocity–science.  She was as bad as the men were. She reformed nothing, and didn’t even try.  When Émilie du Châtelet was a young student, she once attempted to attend a scientific meeting.  She was turned away at the door as females were not allowed.  Instead of protesting or later boycotting the scientific meetings, she just retired to a friend’s house, donned male clothing and attended the scientific meeting as a man.  To her, it was simply a practical problem to be solved, not a societal wrong that needed to be solved for others.  (To others there is the belief that every since that early episode she insisted on always flaunting her femininity with her low cut gowns rather than dress in plain “professional” attire.)  She got a pass and was not beaten down or inhibited by the sexism of the times.  She had a great education when virtually no other women did.  And she did nothing to modify the sexist structure and help out any other females.  There are other feminists who believe that she (and Lisa Meitner) although great scientists are very poor role models for modern girls and women.  If you are rich enough, and brilliant enough, you will be spared the indignity and sexism reserved for most women.  Elimination of sexism in science is not reaching the point where incredibly brilliant and outstanding female scientists are accepted and can function in the community of scientists.  The sexism will be eliminated when the average of even lower than average female will have the same prerogatives as the average and lower than average males.  There will always be room at the top of any field; equality and fairness is measured in the middle and at the bottom.

Even if we agree with that feminist criticism of Émilie du Châtelet, we think it totally counterproductive to keep her story below the radar.  For each of the “unwholesome” values of Émilie du Châtelet, there were some that embraced mainstream behavior.  She was a devoted mother.  Her love of learning and studying—especially as a female activity would be an exemplar that modern liberals and conservatives would enthusiastically support.  Arguably, in today’s society young people, in order to be scientists, have to invest huge amounts of their time in studying and learning.  This is not unlike the time that would have to be spent in practice to develop a great athlete or musician.  It is extremely difficult to persuade young people to invest that kind of time and defer the gratification and pay off for 20 years or more.  Success comes for those youngsters who have a love for learning and study—for whom learning mathematics and science is self-reinforcing.  Just like the youngster who spends countless hours in his garage band rehearsal but enjoys every minute of it, the would-be scientist ideally will enjoy studying and learning geometric proofs, calculus and differential equations.  And there is no better exemplar in history for boys as well as girls as was Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet.

No one would argue that the Marquise was a scientist in the same league as Newton, Einstein or even Lisa Meitner.  However, she was an important scientific figure.  Her first publication forsaged the discovery of the infrared spectrum of light.  She made a major correction of one of Newton’s errors.  Some modern scientists observe that her work was an important link in the long intellectual and scientific chain that lead to the famous Einstein equation, E=mc2.  This special case of energy related to velocity uses c as the speed of light.  And the energy is proportional to c2, not to c as Newton initially had it wrong.  She was a major force in spreading the Newtonian vision of the universe to scientists throughout the Francophile world.  To this day, hers is the only full translation of Newton into French.

On the planet Venus there is a crater about 10 miles in diameter.  It has been given the name “du Chatelet” in memory and as a recognition of Émilie du Châtelet.  However one wants to assess the life and contributions of this iconoclastic, independent female scientist and mathematician, of one thing all must agree.  Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet was the first female scientist who was fully accepted by the male scientific and other intellectuals of the day.  Until Marie Curie came along 150 years later, she was the best known female scientist in history.  Arguably she is even today, the woman scientist who has been most accepted female scientist by her colleagues in history.  Her story is as unique as it is fascinating—with no one ever exhibiting much similarity.

Entry filed under: History, Science. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. redstonefreedom@gmail.com  |  March 7, 2014 at 12:39 AM

    Outstandingly well-composed essay. Upon reading a few short descriptions of Émilie, I developed a hunch that would turn out to be true; Émilie is nothing short of beautiful and amazing, in every sense of both those words. It is inspiring and invigorating to read of such an impassioned, powerful, and self-actualized woman. If ever there were a role model for how to take control of one’s life and live it to the fullest, Émilie du Châtelet is it.

    I’m glad you took the time and effort to spread the tale of such a wonderful individual; there are a great many who would do well to know the name of the independent and brilliant french woman.

    Reply

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