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Émilie du Châtelet - a great man whose only -

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HideRobyn Williams: Do you know what the word 'computers' meant originally? Well, it referred to women, women who did the graph calculations that, for instance, astronomers came up with. In fact Dava Sobel on The Science Show a few weeks back talking about Copernicus is writing a new book about these calculating women. Robyn Arianrhod has done likewise but about two brilliant women, mainly self-taught, who revolutionised maths and science in their own ways, against the odds. The first is my own heroine, Émilie du Châtelet. Here's the author at the Sydney Writers' Festival with Lynne Malcolm.

Robyn Arianrhod: She is one of my heroines, long-term heroines, very feisty, very outrageous, but very serious in her passions, and she was born into the aristocracy, married off at 18, given a reasonable education for a girl at the time in that she seemed to have been given quite a good education in Latin, which proved handy later on when she decided to translate Newton's Principia from Latin into French. But she wasn't given any science or mathematics.

Lynne Malcolm: She was said to be interested in people who think.

Robyn Arianrhod: People who think, that's right. And she was married off at 18 to the Marquis du Châtelet in an arranged marriage, and marriages at that time in France were really dynastic arrangements, they weren't love matches, there was no pretence of that, which is why they all had affairs. So there was no problem with having an affair, except that the affairs were supposed to be discreet and they were supposed to be superficial games of seduction, entertainment for the rich and idle.

Lynne Malcolm: She was a very extravagant dresser too, wasn't she, and she had scandalous affairs.

Robyn Arianrhod: She was not going to do anything by halves, not her dressing...she used to wear these...they were called pom-poms, and I think they were made of silk and down, she was very famous for all her elaborate dressing. And Voltaire referred to her as Madame Newton du Châtelet, and then sometimes he would even say Madame Newton Pom-Pom du Châtelet. So she was obviously quite extravagant in her manner of dressing and in her passions. So while it was all right to have affairs, it wasn't all right to fall passionately in love with your lover, as she did with the Voltaire.

Lynne Malcolm: The great love affair for both of them.

Robyn Arianrhod: I think so, yes. They were a real feisty coupling. They really adored each other and had an incredible communion of souls. At one stage Voltaire was...an arrest warrant was sent out for him because he'd written his famous little book on all things English. In another earlier period of exile he'd gone to England and actually met with some of Newton's disciples, and actually went to Newton's funeral. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with great honours, and Voltaire said, 'I was astonished to see a scientist buried like a king,' he thought this was amazing because he felt that in France they didn't honour their scientists. And Descartes, who had been the leading French mathematician, he'd died about 30 years before Principia, but he was still the authority. And he died in exile, and Voltaire was very moved by the fact that poor Descartes had not been accepted because he was even seen as too rational for the church who wanted a more mystical approach to science. And so he was amazed that Newton was treated like that.

Lynne Malcolm: So he was fascinated by Newton in his own right, and Émilie was too.

Robyn Arianrhod: Exactly.

Lynne Malcolm: They had a joint passion for Newton.

Robyn Arianrhod: Yes, they did.

Lynne Malcolm: And they brought together quite different ends of the spectrum. Émilie had the logic and the mathematics, and Voltaire had the poetry and the philosophy. They were an amazing duo.

Robyn Arianrhod: Yes. And at that time (as I was starting to say) Émilie said she thought Voltaire would die if he was imprisoned because he'd written about how Britain was more tolerant, you could have more freedom of speech, it honoured its scientists. You know, he was writing these things that were saying how great Britain was, it had a constitutional monarchy. And so when he was about to be sent off to prison, she said, 'I don't think I can bear to think of him in prison, he might die of sadness if not of illness. He's the only person who has ever been able to fill my heart and my mind.' And that's the sort of telling thing, they really did fill each other's heart and mind.

Lynne Malcolm: And he was very dependent on Émilie too for her powers of mind and her different perspectives.

Robyn Arianrhod: Yes, and in fact as a result of that arrest warrant he was actually allowed out of hiding into house arrest, if you like, the du Châtelet estate at Cirey, and that's where they formed their academy, that's where they began to work together and to collaborate on bringing Newton to the world, and particularly to the French and the continental world.

Lynne Malcolm: Yes, they called it the Academy of Free Thought at Cirey, and this was because Émilie, as a woman she couldn't really travel, she couldn't really go off and mix with the people that she wanted to mix with, so she set up this academy with Voltaire.

Robyn Arianrhod: Yes, it was sort of a wonderful series of good luck, in a way, that the husband chosen for her by her parents, the Marquis du Châtelet, seemed to be a really, really decent guy. I mean, he had his own mistresses and he was off fighting wars most of the time, so he was never home. But they did have a deep friendship and trust. And he was quite supportive of her study and he was very supportive of her relationship with Voltaire, and in fact offered his protection when Voltaire was in trouble with the authorities and offered the (run-down at that stage) estate at Cirey for protection.

Lynne Malcolm: And this Academy of Free Thought became the most fascinating place. There was a lab there.

Robyn Arianrhod: Yes, that's right. So even though the Marquis du Châtelet was a really generous and good man, it wasn't done for women to travel and he would not give her permission. She dearly wanted to go to Britain to meet Newton's disciples as Voltaire had done, and he wouldn't let her, it just wasn't done for women to travel. So when the opportunity came to actually get Voltaire out of hot water, ensconce him at Cirey, she still didn't feel that it was appropriate for her to go there. But in the end she thought, well, she can't bear being in Paris without him, 'Paris has become a desert,' she says, 'without him, without love, I cannot exist without love.' But at the same time, as you said, because she was not allowed to travel, because women were not allowed to enter the scientific academies...they might have given a public lecture twice a year and that was the only time they were allowed to set foot in the doors, let alone become members, so she thought, well, I think I can go off there, live with my beloved, work on Newton, and if I can't travel I'll have people come and see me.

Robyn Williams: And she did. The amazing, brilliant Émilie du Châtelet. More on her next week with Robyn Arianrhod and Lynne Malcolm at the Sydney Writers' Festival. Next week, apart from Émilie, they'll talk about Mary Somerville, both in Robyn's gorgeous book Seduced by Logic.

And next week on The Science Show as well, Leigh Dayton, formerly of The Australian newspaper, on the Nobel prizes. And I'll look at some superhumans in London.