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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.”
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.
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.