She had an aristocratic name, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, and was: daughter of the Baron de Breteuil born in 1706, she became marquise when she married Florent Claude du Châtelet in 1725. From an early age she was encouraged by her parents to acquire an education sophisticated, rare for a young woman at the time: music, dance, singing, theatre, gymnastics, horse riding, languages (at age 12 she was fluent in German, Italian, Latin and Greek) and her great passion, mathematics and physics.
The marquis du Châtelet was a man of war, eleven years his senior and with little in common with his wife, but the marriage was surprisingly happy. Three children later, the relationship had already evolved into a complicit friendship with each other’s freedoms, which lasted for the rest of their lives. For Émilie, the freedoms of learning and loving.
He studied mathematics with Maupertuis, author of the famous principle of least action, who introduced him to Newton’s ideas, and with Clairaut, a pioneer of differential equations. He corresponded with mathematicians such as Leonhard Euler and Johann II Bernoulli, and even with the King of Prussia, Frederick II.Othe big.
Émilie helped prove experimentally that kinetic energy is proportional to the square of the velocity, as Leibniz had stated. In 1738, she became the first woman to have a scientific essay –on the nature of fire– published by the French Academy of Sciences. Her best-known work, published posthumously in 1756, is the first translation of the “Principia Mathematica” in France, with commentary, which remains the basis of translations of Newton’s work into French. In her writings, she also addressed topics as diverse as philosophy, finance, biblical studies, and advocacy for women’s education. Several of her texts were copied directly into the Encyclopedia, the great work of the Enlightenment.
Even so, she is still mentioned above all in the context of her relationship, romantic and intellectual, with the most brilliant (and controversial) of the Enlightenment, the philosopher Voltaire, which lasted for most of her adult life. Although Voltaire acknowledged her superiority in the sciences (“I used to teach myself with you. Now you have flown where I can no longer follow you”), history has sought to relegate her to the shadow of man, making her forget the influence and prestige he enjoyed in life.
Injustice is being corrected. The Émilie du Châtelet Institute was created in France in 2006 to support and develop research on women, sex and gender, and both the French Physical Society and Duke University in the United States offer scientific awards named after her.
Émilie died on September 10, 1749, aged 42, due to complications from the delivery of her fourth child, a girl, the result of her relationship with the poet Jean-François de Saint-Lambert.
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