Émilie du Châtelet, Mathematician From the 18th Century

Anonymous

4/26/20223 min read

EARLY LIFE
Émilie du Châtelet was born on 17 December 1706 in Paris, the only girl amongst six children. Three brothers lived to adulthood: Her eldest brother, René-Alexandre, died in 1720, and her next brother, Charles-Auguste, died in 1731.

However, her younger brother, Elisabeth-Théodore, lived to a successful old age, becoming an abbot and eventually a bishop. Two other brothers died at a very young age. Du Châtelet also had a half-sister, Michelle, who was born of her father and Anne Bellinzani, an intelligent woman who was interested in astronomy and married an important Parisian official.

Her father was Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil, a member of the lesser nobility. At the time of Du Châtelet's birth, her father held the position of the Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to King Louis XIV. He held a weekly salon on Thursdays, to which well-respected writers and scientists were invited. Her mother was Gabrielle Anne de Froullay, Baronne de Breteuil.

PERSONAL LIFE
On 12 June 1725, she married the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. Her marriage conferred the title of Marquise du Chastellet. Like many marriages among the nobility, theirs was arranged. As a wedding gift, her husband was made governor of Semur-en-Auxois in Burgundy by his father; the recently married couple moved there at the end of September 1725. Du Châtelet was eighteen at the time, her husband thirty-four.

Marquis and Émilie had three children: Françoise-Gabrielle-Pauline, Louis Marie Florent, and Victor-Esprit. Victor-Esprit died as an infant in late summer 1734, likely on the last Sunday in August. On 4 September 1749 Émilie du Châtelet gave birth to Stanislas-Adélaïde du Châtelet (daughter of Jean François de Saint-Lambert). She died as an infant in Lunéville on 6 May 1751.

MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Du Châtelet made a crucial scientific contribution in making Newton's historic work more accessible in a timely, accurate, and insightful French translation, augmented by her own original concept of energy conservation.

Du Châtelet is often represented in portraits with mathematical iconographies, such as holding a pair of dividers or a page of geometrical calculations. In the early nineteenth century, a French pamphlet of celebrated women (Femmes célèbres) introduced a possibly apocryphal story of Du Châtelet's childhood. According to this story, a servant fashioned a doll for her by dressing up wooden dividers as a doll; however, du Châtelet undressed the dividers and, intuiting their purpose, made a circle with them.

Since 2016, the French Society of Physics (la Société Française de Physique) has awarded the Emilie Du Châtelet Prize to a physicist or team of researchers for excellence in Physics. Duke University also presents an annual Du Châtelet Prize in Philosophy of Physics "for previously unpublished work in philosophy of physics by a graduate student or junior scholar."

ÉMILIE'S FUN FACTS

  • In 1749, the year of Du Châtelet's death, she completed the work regarded as her outstanding achievement: her translation into French, with her commentary, of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (often referred to as simply the Principia).

  • Émilie du Châtelet is portrayed by the actress Hélène de Fougerolles in the docudrama Einstein's Big Idea.

  • She was a polymath who ignored the gender norms of her time.

  • As a young woman, Du Châtelet learned to speak six languages and was educated in math and science among her other studies. Although women weren’t supposed to be interested in such things, her father recognized her talent and ambition.

  • She had a romantic affair with Voltaire and suffered a miscarriage.

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Mathematical Association of America