22/03/2011

(Not)* On Ada Lovelace's day: Emilie du Chatelet

"Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one."
      Mme du Ch√Ętelet to Frederick the Great of Prussia.


Behind every great man, they used to say, stands a great woman.
Well, some still say it. So for every great woman standing behind a great man, I say:
Take a large stick, and hit the good man over the head with it. Then stand in the light you were hidden from. Enjoy.

All this is especially true of the wives, sisters, mistresses of the men of the Enlightenment period. Mme du Chatelet is an excellent example of a woman who could have used a large stick.

In her twenties, Emilie du Chatelet met Voltaire, then in his forties, and set him up in a family castle where they could conduct scientific research together. All this was partly financed by gambling: Du Chatelet used her skills at maths to win at cards whenever she and Voltaire ran out of money.

Voltaire was not a great scientist. Yet, he was considered the leader of their research team, and she the assistant. Du Chatelet, trying to help him write  a treatise on light came up with some fairly interesting discoveries of her own, outshining his attempts at scientific experiments. Rather than simply helping himself to her work, as many would have done, Voltaire had the grace to be jealous of her superior skills and intellect, and they eventually broke up.

Du Chatelet went on to translate Newton's works. Her translation of his Principia Mathematica also included a commentary which made several critical points about Newton's calculations, suggesting revisions of some of his findings (she actually redid the sums herself to check they were right as part of her translation). She also brought in some of Descartes and Leibniz's metaphysics, in an attempt at synthesing the main ideas of the time.

She considered this translation to be her greatest work (she also published philosophical treatises) and hoped that it would bring her immortality. But another great man came along to make sure this wouldn't happen. Mme du Chatelet, said Kant, might as well have a beard as be a scientist of genius: women do not reason, he said, they can only sense.

Kant was a great man. So no one bothered with Emilie du Chatelet until the Twentieth Century.

...


* Looking up the site where I was supposed to link this, I found out that Ada Lovelace's day has been moved to October! Oh well, you can never write too much about women scientists or philosophers, with or without beards.

3 comments:

Erin said...

Cheers to Mme du Ch√Ętelet, Ada Lovelace, you and great women who do great things!

March 17th said...

I could not agree more, love this. I am researching quotes for my book, I love this one from Virginia Woolf in particular 'As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the world.'

Sandrine said...

Thanks Erin! The real Ada Lovelace day is in october this year.
@March 17th: Ooh, what book is that? Wollstonecraft also has lots of inspired bits like this.

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