Wednesday, March 24, 2010
I want to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology by remembering Emilie du Châtelet.
Emilie was a near unknown 18th century scientist who helped transform French scientific life. She accomplished this in a world in which science had little political, institutional or economic support. And she was a woman scientist in a social world in which very few women could shine and in which women were rarely publicly respected for their own worth.
Emilie's major achievement was to translate Newton's Principia into French, she strengthened it's reputation by commenting critically upon its complex mathematical ideas, and she raised the level of debate about the metaphysical concerns that Newton's thinking posed.
I discovered Emilie quite by chance - a radio program that I tuned into half way through. First her name was coupled to that of Voltaire. Then I heard that Voltaire contributed to current scientific debate and was a keen experimentalist. Finally, following initial surprise, my admiration and fascination for Emilie truly began when I heard that Emilie was an experimental scientist and mathematician herself, who's brilliance easily outshone Voltaire's own scientific talents. Indisputably, I learned, Emilie established Newton's scientific work and reputation in France, writing the only translation of his work into French, which remains in use today.
So, why do I look back nearly 300 years and have so much personal admiration of Emilie? Well, to begin, in stark contrast to Emilie and despite the benefits that I have gained from our strong scientific cannon, I only really know Newton's laws from being taught them in school physics. And despite my advantages, I have not even begun to 'scratch the surface' of the power and depth of his thinking. Clearly Emilie's work was not only of fundamental importance in helping to establish modern cosmology, she clearly appreciated his importance at a time when there were few other true scientific leaders.
Although I have not read Emilie du Chatelet's work, I think that if I could understand it, I might be inspired also. This, despite the separation in time of nearly 300 years between my life and hers. She was in fact writing when there was, perhaps, no one scientific cannon, and scientific truth was difficult to establish and maintain authoritatively. She lived and created, then, despite a time of fundamental scientific uncertainty.
Emilie du Chatelet was an amazing woman who worked without institutional support, and without access to channels for academic accreditation, peer support or critical review. I think that Emilie du Chatelet deserves our complete admiration.