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.