“Émilie du Châtelet was famous for centuries as little more than Voltaire’s favorite girlfriend. But her genius was obvious from a very young age, and so was her endearingly modern attitude over whether a laboratory was really a woman’s place. She simply did not give a rat’s butt about all that noise.
Her nobleman father recognized her obvious brilliance when she was a child, and became her educational ally. Though there are conflicting reports about her mother’s opinion on all this, the overall consensus is that she was scandalized by her daughter’s budding mind, and tried to send her to a convent to straighten her out. It appears that the one time misogyny actually worked in Émilie’s favor was in this parental debate, in which her mother’s qualms were squashed by her father’s support.
The education paid off, and fast. By the time she was 12, Châtelet could speak six different languages, knew the classic canon backwards and forwards, and could ride a horse and handle a sword. As a teenager, she used her mathematical genius to devise a clever system for maximizing gambling returns, and then used the winnings to buy books and lab gear. I know—I’m as confused as anyone about why this woman does not have a biopic, and this is just the beginning of her story.
As she developed into an intellectual powerhouse, her father began to share her mother’s fears about her blatant disregard for gender roles “My youngest flaunts her mind,” he said, “and frightens away the suitors.” He need not have worried. Châtelet would have a lot of trouble getting men to accept her as an equal, but seducing them was not shaping up to be a problem. In fact, the abundance of suitors was more of an issue. She married the Marquis Châtelet-Lomont when she was 19, and it seems his leniency for her wandering eye was a central motivation for the match.
Her most famous lover was Voltaire, and together they would bring Isaac Newton’s work to continental Europe. Voltaire was not only her intellectual match, he was her much-needed advocate. For years, Châtelet had been pulling out all the stops to gain access to the French scientific community but had been barred over and over due to her pesky lack of a Y-chromosome (though when she showed up to meetings dressed as a man, she was sometimes allowed in).
Châtelet had been obsessed with Newton since she first read the Principia, and felt she had been put on the Earth to spread the good word of Newtonian physics. But she knew she had the chops to build on his work too, and even corrected Newton’s kinetic energy formula, which he had derived as E = mv. Leibniz had come to a different answer, E = mv², so she carried out the necessary experiments herself and discovered Leibniz was correct. Her proof laid the groundwork for Einstein’s iconic formula two centuries later.
Voltaire used his fame as a springboard to help her get the foothold she needed, and together they published Elements of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (only Voltaire is credited, but the book is built on Châtelet’s expertise). Newton’s ideas were fighting a losing battle against Cartesian physics in France, and this accessible volume went a long way to shifting the balance in favor of the brave Newtonian world.”