We were practically woken by Émilie’s story: “She learned to ride and fence, to the utter dismay of her mother, and she tended to ask questions girls of her age weren’t heard asking,” our radio told us. I guess “she” also didn’t dislike getting up early. Well, I was hooked and ready to listen before getting up and what a story it was!
It turned out Émilie du Châtelet was born at a time when women need not have learned to read or write, let alone think about science. Like: mathematics and physics. At the beginning of the 18th century it was generally believed they were not suitable for such higher tasks and Émilie was very lucky to have a father and a husband who supported her, though she still couldn’t gain access to most important scientific developments and institutions of her time, at least not without a trick or five.
And then there was her most important lover: Voltaire.
Before she died, aged 41, together with her daughter she had given birth to a few days before, Émilie du Châtelet translated and commented Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French, making it more comprehensible at the same time. Hers is still a valid French translation of that monumental work.
I cannot keep wondering what she’d have been able to accomplish today: Sorbonne was opened to female students in 1860, in 1903, Marie Curie shared her Nobel Prize with her husband, since 1945, women were allowed to become Fellows of the Royal Society, in 1979, the first female full member of the French Academie of Sciences was admitted, and, last but not least, we have internet in the 21st century. 🙂 And books and stuff, of course.