Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution

Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution

Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution

Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution

Synopsis

Newton's explanations of natural laws shattered the way mankind perceived the universe, and hence were not immediately embraced. How can anyone warm to a force that could not be seen or touched? But for two women, separated by time and space but joined in their passion for Newtonian physics,that force drove them to great achievements. Brilliant, determined, and almost entirely self-taught, they dedicated their lives to explaining and disseminating Newton's discoveries.Robyn Arianrhod's Seduced by Logic tells the dual biography of Emilie du Chatelet and Mary Somerville, who, despite living a century apart, were connected by their love for mathematics and their places at the heart of the most advanced scientific society of their age. When Newton published hisrevolutionary theory of gravity in 1687, most of his Continental peers rejected it for its reliance on physical observation and mathematical insight and its lack of religious or metaphysical hypotheses. But the brilliant French aristocrat and intellectual Emilie du Chatelet and some of her earlyeighteenth-century Enlightenment colleagues - including her lover, Voltaire - realized the Principia Mathematica had changed everything, marking the beginning of theoretical science as a predictive, quantitative, and secular discipline. Emilie devoted herself to furthering Newton's ideas in France,and her translation of the Principia became the accepted French version of his work. Almost a century later, in Scotland, Mary Somerville taught herself mathematics and rose from genteel poverty to become a world authority on Newtonian physics. Living in France, she became acquainted with the workof one of Newton's proteges, Pierre Simon Laplace, and translated his six-volume Celestial Mechanics into English. It remained the standard astronomy text for the next century, and was considered the most influential work since Principia. Combining biography and history of science, Seduced by Logic not only reveals the fascinating story of two incredibly talented women, but also brings to life a period of dramatic political and scientific change. With lucidity and skill, Arianrhod reveals the intimate links between the unfolding Newtonian revolution and the origins of intellectual and political liberty.

Excerpt

Two of my favourite women in history are the wonderfully outrageous Émilie du Châtelet and the charmingly subversive Mary Somerville. Against great odds, Émilie and Mary taught themselves mathematics, and they did it so well that they each became a world authority on Newtonian mathematical physics. When I started out studying higher mathematics, the very existence of these women was enough to encourage me to believe that I, too, could succeed. But this book took shape much more recently, when I discovered a new connection with my heroines.

I was in Paris, researching Émilie’s life and work, and just as I had hoped, it was both moving and exciting to be able to build a deeper kinship with her – walking the streets she walked, reading her poignant, passionate letters, and best of all, reading her painstakingly handwritten manuscript of her French translation of Newton’s monumental Principia. But this last experience led me to something entirely unexpected: a deeper appreciation of Newton himself, and of the importance of his work not only in science, but also in our cultural history. of course, I already admired Newton immensely: in the Principia (the full title of which is Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), he published his famous theory of gravity, and in so doing, he created the very discipline of theoretical physics. But modern students and researchers generally study modern textbooks and current research . . .

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