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How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Almost Saved Gauss’s Life

“The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare… since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them.”

How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Almost Saved Gauss’s Life

A century after the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet popularized Newton and paved the path for women in science, and a few decades before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776–June 27, 1831) gave herself an education using her father’s books and became a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, who pioneered elasticity theory and made significant contributions to number theory.

In lieu of a formal education, unavailable to women until more than a century later, Germain supplemented her reading and her natural gift for science by exchanging letters with some of the era’s most prominent mathematicians. Among her famous correspondents was Carl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many scholars the greatest mathematician who ever lived. Writing under the male pseudonym M. LeBlanc — “fearing the ridicule attached to a female scientist,” as she herself later explained — Germain began sharing with Gauss some of her theorem proofs in response to his magnum opus Disquisitiones Arithmeticae.

Sophie Germain

Their correspondence began in 1804, at the peak of the French occupation of Prussia. In 1806, Germain received news that Napoleon’s troops were about to enter Gauss’s Prussian hometown of Brunswick. Terrified that her faraway mentor might suffer the fate of Archimedes, who was killed when Roman forces conquered Syracuse after a two-year siege, she called on a family friend — the French military chief M. Pernety — to find Gauss in Brunswick and ensure his safety. Pernety tasked one of his battalion commanders with traveling two hundred miles to the occupied Brunswick in order to carry out the rescue mission.

But Gauss, it turned out, was unscathed by the war. In a letter from November 27 of 1806, included in the altogether fascinating Sophie Germain: An Essay in the History of the Theory of Elasticity (public library), the somewhat irate battalion commander reports to his chief:

Just arrived in this town and have bruised myself with your errand. I have asked several persons for the address of Gauss, at whose residence I was to gather some news on your and Sophie Germain’s behalf. M. Gauss replied that he did not have the honor of knowing you or Mlle. Germain… After I had spoken of the different points contained in your order, he seemed a little confused and asked me to convey his thanks for your consideration on his behalf.

Carl Friedrich Gauss (Portrait by Jensen)

Upon receiving the comforting if somewhat comical news, Germain felt obliged to write to Gauss and clear his confusion about his would-be savior’s identity. After coming out as the woman behind the M. LeBlanc persona in a letter from February 20 of 1807, she tells Gauss:

The appreciation I owe you for the encouragement you have given me, in showing me that you count me among the lovers of sublime arithmetic whose mysteries you have developed, was my particular motivation for finding out news of you at a time when the troubles of the war caused me to fear for your safety; and I have learned with complete satisfaction that you have remained in your house as undisturbed as circumstances would permit. I hope, however, that these events will not keep you too long from your astronomical and especially your arithmetical researches, because this part of science has a particular attraction for me, and I always admire with new pleasure the linkages between truths exposed in your book.

Gauss responds a few weeks later:

Mademoiselle,

Your letter … was for me the source of as much pleasure as surprise. How pleasant and heartwarming to acquire a friend so flattering and precious. The lively interest that you have taken in me during this war deserves the most sincere appreciation. Your letter to General Pernety would have been most useful to me, if I had needed special protection on the part of the French government.

Happily, the events and consequences of war have not affected me so much up until now, although I am convinced that they will have a large influence on the future course of my life. But how I can describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M. LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person, yielding a copy so brilliant it is hard to believe? The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare: this is not surprising, since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them. But when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarizing herself with their knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius. Nothing could prove me in a more flattering and less equivocal way that the attractions of that science, which have added so much joy to my life, are not chimerical, than the favor with which you have honored it.

The scientific notes which your letters are so richly filled have given me a thousand pleasures. I have studied them with attention, and I admire the ease with which you penetrate all branches of arithmetic, and the wisdom with which you generalize and perfect. I ask you to take it as proof of my attention if I dare to add a remark to your last letter.

With this, Gauss extends the gift of constructive criticism on some mathematical solutions Germain had shared with him — the same gift which trailblazing feminist Margaret Fuller bestowed upon Thoreau, which shaped his career. Although Gauss eventually disengaged from the exchange, choosing to focus on his scientific work rather than on correspondence, he remained an admirer of Germain’s genius. He advocated for the University of Gottingen to award her a posthumous honorary degree, for she had accomplished, despite being a woman and therefore ineligible for actually attending the University, “something worthwhile in the most rigorous and abstract of sciences.”

She was never awarded the degree.

Red fish pond in front of the girls’ school named after Germain

After the end of their correspondence, Germain heard that the Paris Academy of Sciences had announced a prix extraordinaire — a gold medal valued at 3,000 francs, roughly $600 then or about $11,000 now — awarded to whoever could explain an exciting new physical phenomenon scientists had found in the vibration of thin elastic surfaces. The winning contestant would have to “give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.”

The problem appeared so difficult that it discouraged all other mathematicians except Germain and the esteemed Denis Poisson from tackling it. But Poisson was elected to the Academy shortly after the award was announced and therefore had to withdraw from competing. Only Germain remained willing to brave the problem. She began work on it in 1809 and submitted her paper in the autumn of 1811. Despite being the only entrant, she lost — the jurors ruled that her proofs were unconvincing.

Germain persisted — because no solution had been accepted, the Academy extended the competition by two years, and she submitted a new paper, anonymously, in 1813. It was again rejected. She decided to try a third time and shared her thinking with Poisson, hoping he would contribute some useful insight. Instead, he borrowed heavily from her ideas and published his own work on elasticity, giving Germain no credit. Since he was the editor of the Academy’s journal, his paper was accepted and printed in 1814.

Still, Germain persisted. On January 8, 1816, she submitted a third paper under her own name. Her solution was still imperfect, but the jurors decided that it was as good as it gets given the complexity of the problem and awarded her the prize, which made her the first woman to win an accolade from the Paris Academy of Sciences.

But even with the prize in tow, Germain was not allowed to attend lectures at the Academy — the only women permitted to audit were the wives of members. She decided to self-publish her winning essay, in large part in order to expose Poisson’s theft and point out errors in his proof. She went on to do foundational mathematical work on elasticity, as well as work in philosophy and psychology a century before the latter was a formal discipline. Like Rachel Carson, Germain continued to work as she was dying of breast cancer. A paper she published shortly before her terminal diagnosis precipitated the discovery the laws of movement and equilibrium of elastic solids.

Her unusual life and enduring scientific legacy are discussed in great detail in the biography Sophie Germain. Complement it with the stories of how Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer, how physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission, was denied the Nobel Prize, but led the way for women in science anyway, and how Harvard’s unsung 19th-century female astronomers revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before women could vote.

BP

The Invention of Zero: How Ancient Mesopotamia Created the Mathematical Concept of Nought and Ancient India Gave It Symbolic Form

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world.”

The Invention of Zero: How Ancient Mesopotamia Created the Mathematical Concept of Nought and Ancient India Gave It Symbolic Form

If the ancient Arab world had closed its gates to foreign travelers, we would have no medicine, no astronomy, and no mathematics — at least not as we know them today.

Central to humanity’s quest to grasp the nature of the universe and make sense of our own existence is zero, which began in Mesopotamia and spurred one of the most significant paradigm shifts in human consciousness — a concept first invented (or perhaps discovered) in pre-Arab Sumer, modern-day Iraq, and later given symbolic form in ancient India. This twining of meaning and symbol not only shaped mathematics, which underlies our best models of reality, but became woven into the very fabric of human life, from the works of Shakespeare, who famously winked at zero in King Lear by calling it “an O without a figure,” to the invention of the bit that gave us the 1s and 0s underpinning my ability to type these words and your ability to read them on this screen.

Mathematician Robert Kaplan chronicles nought’s revolutionary journey in The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (public library). It is, in a sense, an archetypal story of scientific discovery, wherein an abstract concept derived from the observed laws of nature is named and given symbolic form. But it is also a kind of cross-cultural fairy tale that romances reason across time and space

Art by Paul Rand from Little 1 by Ann Rand, a vintage concept book about the numbers

Kaplan writes:

If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. For zero brings into focus the great, organic sprawl of mathematics, and mathematics in turn the complex nature of things. From counting to calculating, from estimating the odds to knowing exactly when the tides in our affairs will crest, the shining tools of mathematics let us follow the tacking course everything takes through everything else – and all of their parts swing on the smallest of pivots, zero

With these mental devices we make visible the hidden laws controlling the objects around us in their cycles and swerves. Even the mind itself is mirrored in mathematics, its endless reflections now confusing, now clarifying insight.

[…]

As we follow the meanderings of zero’s symbols and meanings we’ll see along with it the making and doing of mathematics — by humans, for humans. No god gave it to us. Its muse speaks only to those who ardently pursue her.

With an eye to the eternal question of whether mathematics is discovered or invented — a question famously debated by Kurt Gödel and the Vienna Circle — Kaplan observes:

The disquieting question of whether zero is out there or a fiction will call up the perennial puzzle of whether we invent or discover the way of things, hence the yet deeper issue of where we are in the hierarchy. Are we creatures or creators, less than – or only a little less than — the angels in our power to appraise?

Art by Shel Silverstein from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O

Like all transformative inventions, zero began with necessity — the necessity for counting without getting bemired in the inelegance of increasingly large numbers. Kaplan writes:

Zero began its career as two wedges pressed into a wet lump of clay, in the days when a superb piece of mental engineering gave us the art of counting.

[…]

The story begins some 5,000 years ago with the Sumerians, those lively people who settled in Mesopotamia (part of what is now Iraq). When you read, on one of their clay tablets, this exchange between father and son: “Where did you go?” “Nowhere.” “Then why are you late?”, you realize that 5,000 years are like an evening gone.

The Sumerians counted by 1s and 10s but also by 60s. This may seem bizarre until you recall that we do too, using 60 for minutes in an hour (and 6 × 60 = 360 for degrees in a circle). Worse, we also count by 12 when it comes to months in a year, 7 for days in a week, 24 for hours in a day and 16 for ounces in a pound or a pint. Up until 1971 the British counted their pennies in heaps of 12 to a shilling but heaps of 20 shillings to a pound.

Tug on each of these different systems and you’ll unravel a history of customs and compromises, showing what you thought was quirky to be the most natural thing in the world. In the case of the Sumerians, a 60-base (sexagesimal) system most likely sprang from their dealings with another culture whose system of weights — and hence of monetary value — differed from their own.

Having to reconcile the decimal and sexagesimal counting systems was a source of growing confusion for the Sumerians, who wrote by pressing the tip of a hollow reed to create circles and semi-circles onto wet clay tablets solidified by baking. The reed eventually became a three-sided stylus, which made triangular cuneiform marks at varying angles to designate different numbers, amounts, and concepts. Kaplan demonstrates what the Sumerian numerical system looked like by 2000 BCE:

This cumbersome system lasted for thousands of years, until someone at some point between the sixth and third centuries BCE came up with a way to wedge accounting columns apart, effectively symbolizing “nothing in this column” — and so the concept of, if not the symbol for, zero was born. Kaplan writes:

In a tablet unearthed at Kish (dating from perhaps as far back as 700 BC), the scribe wrote his zeroes with three hooks, rather than two slanted wedges, as if they were thirties; and another scribe at about the same time made his with only one, so that they are indistinguishable from his tens. Carelessness? Or does this variety tell us that we are very near the earliest uses of the separation sign as zero, its meaning and form having yet to settle in?

But zero almost perished with the civilization that first imagined it. The story follows history’s arrow from Mesopotamia to ancient Greece, where the necessity of zero awakens anew. Kaplan turns to Archimedes and his system for naming large numbers, “myriad” being the largest of the Greek names for numbers, connoting 10,000. With his notion of orders of large numbers, the great Greek polymath came within inches of inventing the concept of powers, but he gave us something even more important — as Kaplan puts it, he showed us “how to think as concretely as we can about the very large, giving us a way of building up to it in stages rather than letting our thoughts diffuse in the face of immensity, so that we will be able to distinguish even such magnitudes as these from the infinite.”

“Archimedes Thoughtful” by Domenico Fetti, 1620

This concept of the infinite in a sense contoured the need for naming its mirror-image counterpart: nothingness. (Negative numbers were still a long way away.) And yet the Greeks had no word for zero, though they clearly recognized its spectral presence. Kaplan writes:

Haven’t we all an ancient sense that for something to exist it must have a name? Many a child refuses to accept the argument that the numbers go on forever (just add one to any candidate for the last) because names run out. For them a googol — 1 with 100 zeroes after it — is a large and living friend, as is a googolplex (10 to the googol power, in an Archimedean spirit).

[…]

By not using zero, but naming instead his myriad myriads, orders and periods, Archimedes has given a constructive vitality to this vastness — putting it just that much nearer our reach, if not our grasp.

Ordinarily, we know that naming is what gives meaning to existence. But names are given to things, and zero is not a thing — it is, in fact, a no-thing. Kaplan contemplates the paradox:

Names belong to things, but zero belongs to nothing. It counts the totality of what isn’t there. By this reasoning it must be everywhere with regard to this and that: with regard, for instance, to the number of humming-birds in that bowl with seven — or now six — apples. Then what does zero name? It looks like a smaller version of Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, having no there there.

Zero, still an unnamed figment of the mathematical imagination, continued its odyssey around the ancient world before it was given a name. After Babylon and Greece, it landed in India. The first surviving written appearance of zero as a symbol appeared there on a stone tablet dated 876 AD, inscribed with the measurements of a garden: 270 by 50, written as “27°” and “5°.” Kaplan notes that the same tiny zero appears on copper plates dating back to three centuries earlier, but because forgeries ran rampant in the eleventh century, their authenticity can’t be ascertained. He writes:

We can try pushing back the beginnings of zero in India before 876, if you are willing to strain your eyes to make out dim figures in a bright haze. Why trouble to do this? Because every story, like every dream, has a deep point, where all that is said sounds oracular, all that is seen, an omen. Interpretations seethe around these images like froth in a cauldron. This deep point for us is the cleft between the ancient world around the Mediterranean and the ancient world of India.

But if zero were to have a high priest in ancient India, it would undoubtedly be the mathematician and astronomer Āryabhata, whose identity is shrouded in as much mystery as Shakespeare’s. Nonetheless, his legacy — whether he was indeed one person or many — is an indelible part of zero’s story.

Āryabhata (art by K. Ganesh Acharya)

Kaplan writes:

Āryabhata wanted a concise way to store (not calculate with) large numbers, and hit on a strange scheme. If we hadn’t yet our positional notation, where the 8 in 9,871 means 800 because it stands in the hundreds place, we might have come up with writing it this way: 9T8H7Te1, where T stands for ‘thousand’, H for “hundred” and Te for “ten” (in fact, this is how we usually pronounce our numbers, and how monetary amounts have been expressed: £3.4s.2d). Āryabhata did something of this sort, only one degree more abstract.

He made up nonsense words whose syllables stood for digits in places, the digits being given by consonants, the places by the nine vowels in Sanskrit. Since the first three vowels are a, i and u, if you wanted to write 386 in his system (he wrote this as 6, then 8, then 3) you would want the sixth consonant, c, followed by a (showing that c was in the units place), the eighth consonant, j, followed by i, then the third consonant, g, followed by u: CAJIGU. The problem is that this system gives only 9 possible places, and being an astronomer, he had need of many more. His baroque solution was to double his system to 18 places by using the same nine vowels twice each: a, a, i, i, u, u and so on; and breaking the consonants up into two groups, using those from the first for the odd numbered places, those from the second for the even. So he would actually have written 386 this way: CASAGI (c being the sixth consonant of the first group, s in effect the eighth of the second group, g the third of the first group)…

There is clearly no zero in this system — but interestingly enough, in explaining it Āryabhata says: “The nine vowels are to be used in two nines of places” — and his word for “place” is “kha”. This kha later becomes one of the commonest Indian words for zero. It is as if we had here a slow-motion picture of an idea evolving: the shift from a “named” to a purely positional notation, from an empty place where a digit can lodge to “the empty number”: a number in its own right, that nudged other numbers along into their places.

Kaplan reflects on the multicultural intellectual heritage encircling the concept of zero:

While having a symbol for zero matters, having the notion matters more, and whether this came from the Babylonians directly or through the Greeks, what is hanging in the balance here in India is the character this notion will take: will it be the idea of the absence of any number — or the idea of a number for such absence? Is it to be the mark of the empty, or the empty mark? The first keeps it estranged from numbers, merely part of the landscape through which they move; the second puts it on a par with them.

In the remainder of the fascinating and lyrical The Nothing That Is, Kaplan goes on to explore how various other cultures, from the Mayans to the Romans, contributed to the trans-civilizational mosaic that is zero as it made its way to modern mathematics, and examines its profound impact on everything from philosophy to literature to his own domain of mathematics. Complement it with this Victorian love letter to mathematics and the illustrated story of how the Persian polymath Ibn Sina revolutionized modern science.

BP

Trailblazing 18th-Century Mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, Who Popularized Newton, on Gender in Science and the Nature of Genius

“One must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.”

Trailblazing 18th-Century Mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, Who Popularized Newton, on Gender in Science and the Nature of Genius

A century before Ada Lovelace became the world’s first computer programmer, a century before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish polymath Mary Somerville, another woman of towering genius and determination subverted the limiting opportunities her era afforded her and transcended what astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin has aptly called “the enraging pointlessness of small-minded repressions of a soaring and generous human urge” — the urge to understand the nature of reality and use that understanding to expand the corpus of human knowledge.

Émilie du Châtelet (December 17, 1706–September 10, 1749), born nineteen years after the publication of Newton’s revolutionary Principia, became besotted with science at the age of twelve and devoted the remainder of her life to the passionate quest for mathematical illumination. Although she was ineligible for academic training — it would be nearly two centuries until universities finally opened their doors to women — and was even excluded from the salons and cafés that served as the era’s informal epicenters of intellectual life, open only to men, Du Châtelet made herself into a formidable mathematician, a scholar of unparalleled rigor, and a pioneer of popular science.

Émilie du Châtelet (Portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour)

Together with her collaborator and lover Voltaire, who considered her in possession of “a genius worthy of Horace and Newton” and referred to her jocularly as “Madame Newton du Châtelet,” she set about popularizing Newton’s then-radical ideas at a time when even gravity was a controversial notion. The resulting 1738 book, Elements of the Philosophy of Newton, listed Voltaire as the author. But without Du Châtelet’s mathematical brilliance, he — a poet, playwright, philosopher, and political essayist — would’ve been swallowed whole by Newton’s science.

Voltaire knew this and acknowledged it readily in the preface, naming Du Châtelet as an indispensable colleague. The frontispiece of the book depicted her as Minerva, the Roman goddess of truth and wisdom, beaming down upon the seated Voltaire as he wrote. Voltaire’s dedicatory poem celebrated her “vast and powerful Genius” and called her the “Minerva of France,” a “disciple of Newton and of Truth.” In a letter to his friend Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, Voltaire was even more explicit about the division of labor in their Newtonian collaboration: “Minerva dictated and I wrote.”

Frontispiece to Elements of the Philosophy of Newton

By the end of her lamentably short life, Du Châtelet had become a dominant world authority on Newtonian physics. In her final year, she undertook her most ambitious project yet — a translation of Newton’s Principia into French, which became a centerpiece of the Scientific Revolution in Europe and remains the standard French text to this day. Du Châtelet’s accompanying commentary added a great deal of original thought and conveyed to the popular imagination the ideas that would come to shape the modern world, embodying the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska‘s notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”

But it was in another work of translation, which Du Châtelet had undertaken a decade earlier with Voltaire’s encouragement, that she first honed the art of that “rare miracle.” In the late 1730s, while living with Voltaire in her country house in Cirey and collaborating on their Newtonian primer, she read and was deeply moved by The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits — Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 prose commentary on his 1705 satirical poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest, exploring ethics, economics, and the deleterious role of cultural conditioning in gender norms. It was a visionary work centuries ahead of its time in many ways, asserting that human societies prosper through collaboration rather than selfishness, outlining what psychologists now call “the power paradox,” presaging the principle that Adam Smith would term the “invisible hand” seven decades later, and making a case for equal educational opportunities for women a quarter millennium before the modern feminist movement.

Nowhere do Du Châtelet’s remarkable character and fortitude in the face of her culture’s limitations come to life more vividly than in her translator’s preface, included in her Selected Philosophical and Scientific Writings (public library) and discussed in Robyn Arianrhod’s altogether magnificent book Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Châtelet’s, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution (public library).

Du Châtelet writes from Cirey in her early thirties:

Since I began to live with myself, and to pay attention to the price of time, to the brevity of life, to the uselessness of the things one spends one’s time with in the world, I have wondered at my former behavior: at taking extreme care of my teeth, of my hair and at neglecting my mind and my understanding. I have observed that the mind rusts more easily than iron, and that it is even more difficult to restore to its first polish.

Centuries before modern psychologists conceived of the 10,000 hours rule of genius, she argues for giving the intellect a disciplined opportunity to incline itself toward its goals through regular practice:

The fakirs of the East Indies lose the use of the muscles in their arms, because those are always in the same position and are not used at all. Thus do we lose our own ideas when we neglect to cultivate them. It is a fire that dies if one does not continually give it the wood needed to maintain it… Firmness … can never be acquired unless one has chosen a goal for one’s studies. One must conduct oneself as in everyday life; one must know what one wants to be. In the latter endeavors irresolution produces false steps, and in the life of the mind confused ideas.

In a sentiment that makes one wonder whether Schopenhauer read Du Châtelet when he conceived of his famous distinction between talent and genius a century later, she adds:

Those who have received very decided talent from nature can give themselves up to the force that impels their genius, but there are few such souls which nature leads by the hand through the field that they must clear for cultivation or improvement. Even fewer are sublime geniuses, who have in them the seeds of all talents and whose superiority can embrace and perform everything.

In a passage that calls to mind Nietzsche’s reflections on how to find yourself and the true value of education, she considers how ordinary people — that is, non-geniuses — can cultivate their talent:

It sometimes happens that work and study force genius to declare itself, like the fruits that art produces in a soil where nature did not intend it, but these efforts of art are nearly as rare as natural genius itself. The vast majority of thinking men — the others, the geniuses, are in a class of their own — need to search within themselves for their talent. They know the difficulties of each art, and the mistakes of those who engage in each one, but they lack the courage that is not disheartened by such reflections, and the superiority that would enable them to overcome such difficulties. Mediocrity is, even among the elect, the lot of the greatest number.

With an eye to the perils of self-comparison to those more fortune or more gifted than oneself, she adds:

But one must cultivate the portion one has received and not give in to despair, because one has only two arpents [French measurement] of land while others have ten lieues of land.

Émilie du Châtelet (Portrait by Nicolas de Largillière)

In a passage of courage so tremendous and so near-impossible to grasp with our modern imagination, for we have only a detached and abstract idea of what life was like for women in the early 18th century, Du Châtelet proceeds into a visionary critique of patriarchal power structures in science and in life itself:

I feel the full weight of prejudice that excludes us [women] so universally from the sciences, this being one of the contradictions of this world, which has always astonished me, as there are great countries whose laws allow us to decide their destiny, but none where we are brought up to think.

Considering the era’s standard practice of excommunicating actors from the Catholic Church, which considered them “instruments of Satan,” she adds:

Another observation that one can make about this prejudice, which is odd enough, is that acting is the only occupation requiring some study and a trained mind to which women are admitted, and it is at the same time the only one that regards its professionals as infamous.

Du Châtelet, who embodied Adrienne Rich’s notion that an education is something you claim rather than get, points to education as the fulcrum of women’s absence — for, at that point, it was an absence rather than the underrepresentation it is today — from the professional worlds of science, philosophy, and the arts, and proposes a radical vision for education reform that would bolster equality:

Why do these creatures whose understanding appears in all things equal to that of men, seem, for all that, to be stopped by an invincible force on this side of a barrier; let someone give me some explanation, if there is one. I leave it to naturalists to find a physical explanation, but until that happens, women will be entitled to protest against their education. As for me, I confess that if I were king I would wish to make this scientific experiment. I would reform an abuse that cuts out, so to speak, half of humanity. I would allow women to share in all the rights of humanity, and most of all those of the mind… This new system of education that I propose would in all respects be beneficial to the human species. Women would be more valuable beings, men would thereby gain a new object of emulation, and our social interchanges which, in refining women’s minds in the past, too often weakened and narrowed them, would now only serve to extend their knowledge.

In a bittersweet reflection on her own life, which has emboldened women in science for centuries, she adds:

I am convinced that many women are either ignorant of their talents, because of the flaws in their education, or bury them out of prejudice and for lack of a bold spirit. What I have experienced myself confirms me in this opinion. Chance led me to become acquainted with men of letters, I gained their friendship, and I saw with extreme surprise that they valued this amity. I began to believe that I was a thinking creature. But I only glimpsed this, and the world, the dissipation, for which alone I believed I had been born, carried away all my time and all my soul. I only believed in earnest in my capacity to think at an age when there was still time to become reasonable, but when it was too late to acquire talents.

Being aware of that has not discouraged me at all. I hold myself quite fortunate to have renounced in mid-course frivolous things that occupy most women all their lives, and I want to use what time remains to cultivate my soul.

Her closing words — wry, unsentimental, quietly poetic — radiate Du Châtelet’s defiant genius:

The unfairness of men in excluding us women from the sciences should at least be of use in preventing us from writing bad books. Let us try to enjoy this advantage over them, so that this tyranny will be a happy necessity for us, leaving nothing for them to condemn in our works but our names.

Seduced by Logic delves deeper into Du Châtelet’s extraordinary mind, spirit, and legacy. Complement it with pioneering physicist Lise Meitner’s only direct remarks on gender in science and this loving remembrance of astrophysicist Vera Rubin, who led the way for modern women in STEM, then revisit the story of how Voltaire fell in love with his Minerva.

BP

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