Archive for September 9th, 2008

Mathematician of the Week: Émilie du Châtelet

September 9, 2008

Émilie du Châtelet was born December 17, 1706, and died September 10, 1749. Her academic training came at home under the supervision of tutors and her parents. Voltaire commented that “her mind was nourished by reading good authors in more than one language…[and that] her dominant taste was for mathematics and philosophy”.

Many sources comment that her most significant mathematical contribution was her translation, into French, of Newton’s Principia. And while it is true that hers would be for quite some time the only translation of Newton’s work available in French, to characterize du Châtelet the mathematician as merely a translator of Newton does her a disservice, for she produced a significant amount of original work as well. Among her other publications:

  • She coauthored [without attribution] Voltaire’s Elements de la philosophie de Newton (1736)
  • She translated and added additional material to Mandeville’s The fable of the bees. Her preface includes the following passage:
    • I am convinced that many women are either unaware of their talents by reason of the fault in their education or that they bury them on account of prejudice for want of intellectual courage. My own experience confirms this. Chance made me acquainted with men of letters who extended the hand of friendship to me. … I then began to believe that I was a being with a mind …
  • Her Dissertation su la nature et la propagation du feu was submitted to the Academie des Sciences in Paris, for the Grand Prix of 1737. While her submission did not win (she lost out to Leonhard Euler), her work was still published by the Academie in 1744.
  • In 1740, she published a book Institutions de physique, an attempt at a unified treatment of Cartesian, Newtonian, and Leibnizian philosophy.

At the time of her death, she was working on her translation of, and commentaries on, Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. Subsequent work on that translation was undertaken by Alexis Clairaut, and  completed in 1759.

The next French translation of Newton’s Principia, so far as I can determine, was published in 1985, which speaks to the influence and significance of Émilie du Châtelet’s contribution.

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