Madame Mathematics

Mary
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With all the beer and sports around here (just 10 more hours left to enter our contest!), it's getting a little testosterone-y. So I thought I'd draw your attention to this wonderful piece in the Guardian about Emilie du Châtelet, intellectual femme fatale of the 18th century:

In her late 20s, after an affair with the individual who inspired the character Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (she was the only partner he had who ever willingly dumped him), she met the poet and writer Voltaire, then in his 40s. ...

This is where the great problem with her subsequent reputation began, for Voltaire wasn't much of a scientist, but Du Châtelet was a skilled theoretician. Once, working secretly at night at the chateau over just one intense summer month, hushing servants to not spoil the surprise for Voltaire, she came up with insights on the nature of light that set the stage for the future discovery of photography, as well as of infrared radiation. It was a humiliating contrast for Voltaire, and especially grating when she began to probe into the still recent mathematical physics of Sir Isaac Newton.

Voltaire could not follow any of the maths, but on political grounds he wanted to believe that Newton was perfect in all respects. Du Châtelet, however, began a research programme that went beyond Newton and led to her glimpsing notions that would lead later researchers to the idea of conservation of energy fundamental to all subsequent physics.

voltaire.jpgdu Châtelet and Voltaire (at left, that's not an unflattering portrait of du Châtelet) eventually broke up, but he returned at her deathbed and later gave her a supremely backhanded compliment, calling her "a great man whose only fault was being a woman." There's lots more on du Châtelet, and how her work eventually led to the formation of e=mc2, here. (For more on her numerous affairs, stick with the Guardian piece.)

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August 4, 2006 - 4:25am
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