Who Is Emilie?

Who is Emilie Du Chatelet?


Oh, just a stunning lady badass of the French Enlightenment that you’ll never forget.

No big deal.

 

Emilie La Marquise Du Chatelet was a sexy French brain-powered phenom of the Enlightenment. She was a tour de force of a woman. A physicist at a time before there was such a word, a mathematical genius, a card shark (the practical use of her mathematical genius), a published author, and the love of Voltaire’s life. And she was a woman. Which made everything I just mentioned ten times harder to achieve. Accept being Voltaire’s lover… which would have been easy to start, but not to maintain for over ten years.


The scientific reason you should know her is that she fought to square speed in the fundamental equations that defined our universe. She fought (and was ridiculed) for standing by the unpopular idea by an unpopular philosopher Leibnitz, who advocated squaring speed in the new equations for Force. Newton said Force was equaled to mass times velocity, F=mv (or F=ma , a for acceleration).

Emilie said it was F = mv2.*

That same squaring of speed would show up centuries later in Einstein’s E = mc2.
She also wrote the very first translation of Isaac Newton’s brand new (at the time) Principia Mathematica. Published ten years after her death, it is still the french translation in use today.

Amazing.

 

(In almost all of Emilie’s portraits she looks confidently out at her viewer, a rare pose at the time. She is often not in the stylish wigs of the times, and holds a compass or a book, denoting her intellectual focus.)


So why does she need a play? Her legacy seems to be established by now thanks to some wonderful biographies (the best is Judith Zinsser’s Daring Genius of the Enlightenment. With a title like that you can see why she begs for a play). She even got literary love from one the western world’s most beloved and acclaimed writers in Voltaire. Thanks to legions of letters to and from very important people we know a lot about her life and times. She wasn’t exactly an underdog. She was a marquise, an elitist, a underhanded feminist that demanded her own rights but not those of her own daughter. Why tell her story for a modern audience?

Companion to the demi-myth of Emilie the badass genius beauty, I was struck by her utter and inescapable humanness. The pinnacle of this is the fact that she died too young, in a manner that today is almost unheard of in the developed world. Giving birth at 42, she died surrounded by the three most important men in her life: her husband, her soul mate Voltaire, and the poet and father of her child who reawakened her heart Jean François de Saint-Lambert.

Her untimely passing is in stark confrontation with the single equation that took up most of her life’s work. This equation is the one mentioned above (F=mv2). But what struck me as painfully poetic was that this equation was known a “Force Vive” or “Living Force”. To have a woman so visionary spend her life working on “ Living Force” only to die too soon. It breaks my heart every time.

I love Emilie because even when separated by hundreds of years I still see in her the most common of habits – ambition, love, lust, the need for truth, the unlimited potential for knowledge, the cut of heartbreak, the promise of a new idea, the wondering if you really matter at all.

To me? Emilie tells us that human beings are always human beings. And love and hard work and hope and heartbreak look the same now as they did 300 years ago. That women have always had to prove themselves against harsher critics. That love is never easy. That brilliance is always sexy. That life ends up being about how much you love and trust and come to know yourself. That the largest and deepest of human questions by the most complicated and contradictory of women in history deserves retelling because it tells us about ourselves. Emilie delighted in the reimagining of things. I try and follow her lead.

(One of the rare paintings of Emilie where she is not looking directly out at us, she looks skyward with her familiar compass in one hand and the other on top of  the world.)


Come meet Emilie at Symmetry Theatre’s production of Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight. June 3-July 6th in Berkeley. Information and tickets here.

*My physicists and mathematician friends are likely to get mad about my oversimplification.
Apologies! I’m in the theatre!
Check out more on the math and scientific legacy here and here.
Or just read Judith’s book here.

1 Comment

  1. Åka says:

    Wonderful article! But the physics is not so well explained. F=ma, actually. Which is not the same as mv. Exactly what was the argument about, and how was it expressed?

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