Émilie du Châtelet, pioneering mathematician and feminist


A contemporary portrait of Madame du Châtelet – also known as Gabrielle-Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil.
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Tomorrow, 17 December, is the anniversary of the birth of French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, whose translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica is still the standard French version of the work.

Born in Paris in 1706, du Châtelet, who was also Voltaire’s mistress, was one of the most glamorous figures of her age.

As Robyn Arianrhod explains: “Tall and aristocratic, passionate in both her intellectual and amorous pursuits, she was larger than life.

“Too large for most people at the time: too ambitious, too intellectual, too emotional and too sexually liberated. Too much of a feminist, too: she pulled no punches when writing of her struggle to educate herself in higher mathematics and physics (because girls were denied access to good schools, let alone universities).”

“If I were king,” she wrote, “I would reform an abuse which effectively cuts back half of humanity. I would have women participate in all human rights, and above all, those of the mind.”

Related reading: Émilie du Châtelet: the woman science forgot

Curated content from the editorial staff at Cosmos Magazine.
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