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  • Writer's pictureStephen Himes

Emilie du Chatelet: The Forgotten Genius of France's Scientific Enlightenment

For most of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Emilie du Chatelet was remembered as nothing more than "Voltaire's Mistress." Voltaire himself would take exception: He called her "a great man whose only fault was being a woman."

Emilie du Chatelet is nothing less than the most penetrating intellectual force of the French Scientific Enlightenment. She not only was the first to translate Newton's Principia, thus creating Newton's fame outside of England, she corrected Newton's assumption that momentum is proportional to velocity, eventually relied upon by later thinkers to form our modern ideas on mechanics. In short, Du Chatelet's insights were used by Einstein to square the c in his famous formula,

More than that Emilie du Chatelet was a philosopher, poet, feminist trailblazer, fervent critic of John Locke---the energy and intellect she brought to so many subjects makes her one of the most fascinating figures who ushered in the modern age. She died tragically in her early 40s from a pregnancy gone wrong, and was promptly written out of most history.

We will begin in London for a couple days studying Newton, as well as Du Chatelet's letters in an archive at the City University of London. Next, we will unearth her legacy at sites throughout Paris, studying the beginings of modern science. Then, we will visit her famous Chateau de Cirey, the country estate where she built the first science laboratory and a theater for her lover Voltaire, where they spent their days enraptured in scientific and philosophical thought. From there, we venture to Geneva, Switzerland to see the Voltaire archives.

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