In Our Time podcast has episode on Émile du Châtelet


I have another in my occasional series of podcasts mentioning something of mathematical interest. This is another one from the BBC’s In Our Time, a 50-minute program of three experts discussing a topic. Here the topic is Émile du Châtelet, an 18th century French noblewoman noted for translating Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French. It’s by accounts an outstanding translation, still regarded as one of the best translations the book has had.

This is not the whole of her work, though my understanding is she’d be worth noticing even if it were. Part of the greatness of the translation was putting Newton’s mathematics — which he had done as geometric demonstrations — into the calculus of the day. The experts on In Our Time’s podcast argue that she did a good bit of work advancing the state of calculus in doing this. She’d also done a good bit of work on the problem of colliding bodies.

A major controversy was, in modern terms, whether momentum and kinetic energy are different things and, if they are different, which one collisions preserve. Châtelet worked on experiments — inspired by ideas of Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz — to show kinetic energy was its own thing and was the important part of collisions. We today understand both momentum and energy are conserved, but we have the advantage of her work and the people influenced by her work to draw on.

She’s also renowned for a paper about the nature and propagation of fire, submitted anonymously for the Académie des Sciences’s 1737 Grand Prix. It didn’t win — Leonhard Euler’s did — but her paper and her lover Voltaire’s papers were published.

Châtelet was also surprisingly connected to the nascent mathematics and physics scene of the time. She had ongoing mathematical discussions with Pierre-Louis Maupertuis, of the principle of least action; Alexis Clairaut, who calculated the return of Halley’s Comet; Samuel König, author of a theorem relating systems of particles to their center of mass; and Bernard de Fontenelle, perpetual secretary of the Acadeémie des Sciences.

So for those interested in the history of mathematics and physics, and of women who are able to break through social restrictions to do good work, the podcast is worth a listen.

I spent much of the time waiting for a mention of Chatelier’s principle which never came. This because Chatelier’s principle’s — about the tendency of a system in equilibrium to resist changes — is named for Henry Louis Le Chatelier, a late 19th/early 20th century chemist with, so far as I know, no relation to Émile du Châtelet. I hope this spares you the confusion I felt.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

11 thoughts on “In Our Time podcast has episode on Émile du Châtelet”

          1. That would be cool, and I bet that you could do a bit of research, and then include questions for further research by us, your delighted readers! :-)
            I think we could do with more history of mathematics posts!
            I so enjoyed my hist of math course during my MAT, and so resented not having the time to learn more of the history, and not being able to wrap more of that history into my algebra classes. I did manage to slip a bit more into my GED classes, and got a HS dipolma student or two to give me essays for extra credit, but I’d have loved to teach just the history and the why behind the mathematics. We don’t give our students the time and the depth of study needed to understand what they (and we) don’t understand, and to see the real beauty in maths.

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            1. I do wonder if people would enjoy learning mathematics more if they got more history with it. Unfortunately the stories don’t generally have a lot to do with the algorithms, so neither really helps the other learn.

              On the other hand, memory aids don’t have to make sense to work. I’ve had committed to memory that the International Astronomical Union recognizes 88 distinct constellations because someone offered the mnemonic that this is the same as the number of counties in Ohio, and the bizarreness of pairing Ohio counties and constellations locked both thoughts into my mind.

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              1. Exactly. Sort of like the way people were so confused when I learned how to shift gears (after several other friends had tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me to drive a manual) after a friend explained to me what what happening between the gear box and the engine/drive train when I let out the clutch: I was able to visualize it, and then I was immediately able to start shifting through the gears properly: people learn in different ways, so all connections are helpful, I think.

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                1. Funny you should mention shifting gears. It was looking at pictures of gearboxes and the descriptions of how they work that convinced young me that whatever I did do with my life, it would not be in mechanical engineering or any field with too many mechanical linkages. Also that I would never operate a ten- or even a five-speed bicycle. To date, I have been true to that young insight.

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