Friday, May 25, 2012

Sex, Voltaire, and Mathematics: Emilie de Breteuil

All of my historic-mathematician posts up to this time have been females.  That was by design.  Future posts will be male but for now the historic females hold the spotlight.  Each of the mathematicians I've presented and  intend to present had a rough go of it.  Universally, they were brilliant, and universally they were messed with by the male establishment.  These remarkable women were forced to outshine (in some cases completely eclipse) their male contemporaries just to get to do mathematics in the first place.

Charles Dodsgon, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame said it best or at least his character the Red King did. Please forgive me as I paraphrase just a tad.

Historic Female mathematicians had to run as fast as they could just to stay in one place.  If they wanted to actually get somewhere they had to run twice as fast as that.

This post however features a woman who, although born into a climate (Post Renaissance France) that is indicative of the conditions mentioned above, seemed to not only have less problems, but to have an enviable amount of fun at the same time. 

In Irrational Numbers, the third Bonnie Pinkwater mystery - as I mentioned in a previous post - Bonnie, my teacher/sleuth gives a class of energetic and gifted girl students an assignment to investigate a select group of female mathematicians, six in all. We have already discussed - actually I discussed, you, dear reader, perused - three of them.  For each mathematician Bonnie provided a teaser, a bit of info to entice the girls' interest.

For Emilie de Breteuil, Marquis du Chatelet I will provide the essence of the teaser.  She was the mistress of Voltaire.  At this point in my narrative let's just say that I've always admired Voltaire. This last bit of data makes me admire him even more. From all reports, Voltaire was a homely toad of a man, while Emilie was one of the great beauties of her day.

And smart, Oh my God!

Emilie de Bretuil was born in 1706 during the reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King.  At an early age, she married the thirty-four year old Marquis du Chatelet, who seemed at first enchanted by her passionate nature and exquisite beauty, but quickly became used to the fact that Emilie needed more than one lover. Never discreet, Emilie became a law unto herself.  She weathered scandal after scandal yet was never exiled from court.  Truth was the queen favored her company so much that Emilie was allowed to sit in her company.

While exercising her sexual proclivities, Emilie never failed to exercise her mind.  She mastered every major language of her day.  She added Latin, so she could form her own translation of Vigil's Aenid.  But her true love was for mathematics.

These two aspects of her personality would define her all the days of her life. And all her days she attacked life like an healthy child.  One biographer said of her, "Not one of the frivolous joys of life was too frivolous for her.  The activity of her mind and the natural simplicity of her character occasioned a bizarre struggle between work and play."

It was this perfect blend of the mind and the physical which completely won the heart of Voltaire.  Such was her charm that her husband gave his blessing to Emilie moving in with Voltaire at his castle in Cirey.  From 1733 to 1749 Voltaire's intellectual lair became the focal point of the Enlightenment.  The lovers entertained such luminaries and mathematicians as the Bernoullies, Leibnitz and Isaac Newton(the co-inventors of The Calculus).

Emilie quickly became enamored with the new branch of mathematics, first translating Newton's masterwork  Principia into French then adding to it. On what seems to be a whim, Voltaire and Emilie undertook the creation of an French Encyclopedia that would encompass all the knowledge of the their day.  The completed work was the marvel of the age. In 1738, she secretly entered into a scientific contest that Voltaire himself had entered, and while neither Emilie or Voltaire won the contest both received honors. It needs to be said that the winner of the contest was none other than Euler, the most prolific mathematician of all time (and the subject of a future post).

Eventually, Emilie's passionate nature would prove too much for even the vaunted Voltaire.  She took another lover who would be her true love until her death in 1749.  She became pregnant with his child and although the birth was a success, Emilie never quite recovered her health.  She died in her sleep with her husband, Voltaire, and her new love in attendance.  It is rumored that they held hands as they wept at her deathbed.

Cross-posted at Schooled in Mystery.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Last Martyr of Alexandria: Hypatia

The title of my second Bonnie Pinkwater mystery is A Calculated Demise.  I swear it's true.  The darn thing is written right there on the cover.  What's not written on the cover is the subtitle.  To see that you must open the book and peruse the title page.  If you bravely venture to this page you will see once again, A Calculated Demise, BUT you will also see the much anticipated subtitle, The Hypatia Murders.

I chose this subtitle because included in the mystery A Calculated Demise is a bit of 4th Century AD mathematical--and dare I say it--political history.  To be certain, the political history is ancient, almost seventeen hundred years ancient but I maintain political nonetheless.  And all of it, math, politics, and even religion, is wrapped up in the personage of one of the most extraordinary women to have ever graced the planet.  Hypatia

My wife claims I'm given to superlatives.  I don't see it.

Hypatia of Alexandria was born in 370 AD, obviously in the African city of Alexandria--perhaps one of the most unique municipalities ever to be created by man.  A city totally given over to the pursuit of knowledge.  Her father was Theon (once again of Alexandria, but by now I think you get the picture), the last recorded librarian of the fabled Library of Alexandria.  He himself was a scientist, teacher, and mathematician.

At least one of Hypatia's biographers claims she may have been the result of a systematic program of Eugenics--designed to be the perfect human being. Her family for generations had been trying to manufacture this ideal human through selective breeding, and a rigorous program of mental, spiritual and physical training.  In the person of Hypatia they darn well succeeded.

Physical: Theon believed a person needed a formidable regimen of physical activities in order to produce the healthy body required to support the rigors of superior mental acumen.  Part of every day was set aside for physical activity: calisthenics, rowing, mountain climbing, running, and horseback riding. She was considered one the finest athletes of her era.

Religious: Tolerance was the main tenet of Hypatia's spiritual training.  Theon believed that all religions were equal parts valuable and erroneous.  Theon told his daughter, "Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies.  To teach superstition as truth is the most terrible thing.  The child's mind accepts and believes them and only through pain and perhaps tragedy, can she be relieved of them.  In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth...often more so."

Rhetoric: Theon believed formal training as an orator was necessary for the perfect human being.  Hypatia studied the power of words, received training in all manner of formal speech, and became one of the great orators of her time.  Her words were said to produce an almost hypnotic effect.  In fact, it was this ability to sway people with her words which would lead to her eventual murder.

Intellectual:  Hypatia studied widely, and eventually eclipsed her father in the areas Mathematcis and Astonomy.  Many of her texts on these subjects would become the standards for over a thousand years.  

As fate would have it, this extraordinary human being was born at a time of turbulent political upheaval.  Pope Constantine a half century before had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Where before Christians had been marginalized and persecuted, now it was pagans and Jews who were on the receiving end of persecution.  Synagogues and pagan temples in Alexandria were destroyed.

Hypatia considered herself first of all a free thinker.  Christian authorities considered her a pagan.

On her way to teach a class at the library, she was dragged from her chariot and beaten by a crowd of radical Christians.  I will not relate the full brutality of her eventual death except to say that in the end she was burned at the stake.  Legend has it that looking down from her stake she forgave her tormentors.  More than likely this legend is untrue, but I choose to believe it nonetheless, such is my outrage at this injustice.

In the end, her death was not investigated.  For the sake of civil peace, the Roman prefect of Alexandria (who had been a friend of Hypatia's) deemed it best to drop the matter.  Only further civil unrest would result from an open inquiry.

Larger than life and certainly larger than that of the petty individuals who had taken her life, Hypatia's fame only grew after her death.  In life, students from three continents came to hear her speak.  In death, they printed and re-printed her books.  In life, they spoke of her beauty.  In death, bards sang of her beautiful spirit.  To this day Hypatia of Alexandria is considered the most important female mathematician and scientist of the ancient world.

Truth is, she ranks high as one of the first people I would visit if I could travel in time.

This blog is cross posted at

Friday, May 4, 2012

Feral Child to Scholar: Mary Somerville

In my third Bonnie Pinkwater mystery, Irrational Numbers, I included an assignment for a group of gifted students.  As a long time teacher--thirty-five years teaching middle and high school--I decided this would be a class of highly motivated and enthusiastic teenage girls.  I know my teacher/sleuth Bonnie Pinkwater would appreciate that.  She could joke around with them, challenge them, and most importantly, she could count on them to react in a particular way to injustice, especially injustice perpetrated on a young woman.

One of the things I've always found refreshing about teenagers is their sense of justice.  Their world is black and white.  Something is either right or it is wrong.  And if something is wrong, it should be corrected.  If a person's behavior is unacceptable and maybe even what could be classified as 'bad' the universe should--if it is a fair and just universe--bring down retribution on that person.  Truth is, I probably am still mostly a teenager myself (actually I'm 61) because I think this is precisely how the universe should work.

 Which bring us to the life of Mary Somerville.  Mary was born in 1780 in Scotland, about the time our country was involved in a bit of unpleasantness with Great Britain.  She was the child of a naval war hero and spent her days running free in the mountains and forests of her estate.  Once upon noting her appearance, her father exclaimed, "My heavens, the child is a savage."  She was dirty, illiterate, and from all evidence a happy wild creature.

This sort of thing couldn't continue.  She was shipped off to a girl's finishing school.  Naturally, she hated it and was eventually kicked out.  Yay, Mary (there's my inner teenager expressing himself).

One thing did happen that the wild child hadn't planned on, she (it seems with little help from her teachers at Mrs. Primrose's School--I'm not kidding here; that was the name of the school) taught herself to read.  And not just English but Latin as well.  In fact Latin became the more important of the two since it allowed her to read the commentaries of Caesar and the works of Virgil. It was during this time that Mary stumbled upon a problem at the back of a magazine.  It involved X's and Y's.  When she asked what these symbols represented she was told the problem had something to do with a useless form of arithmetic called Algebra.  Mary would never be the same again.

It needs to said that the general attitude toward education for young women in 18th century Great Britain was that they should learn only enough to allow them to be good mothers.  Anything more was not only a waste of time but would actually be harmful to their health--again, I'm not kidding here; Mary's parents espoused this cockswaddle.

But Mary would not be denied.  She complimented her knowledge of Latin with an understanding of Greek so she could further study Algebra then Geometry (particularly Euclid's Elements).

Her parents were appalled.

 At first they forbid her to read these seditious texts.  When she reused to quit her studies, they took away all her candles so she could only read in the day.  Did this slow her down?  No way!! She pored through all six volumes of Euclid and went on Ferguson's Astronomy and Newton's Principia (in Latin).

 Her parents then got really serious.

They took away her clothes.  If she was going to study mathematics, by God she could darn well do it naked.  So she studied in the buff.

For a brief period they withheld food, in the hope that her hunger would make her see the light of reason.  When that didn't work they rolled up their sleeves and got creative.  They married her off to a rich neanderthal named Samuel Grieg, who promised to put an end to all of this foolishness.  Unfortunately, he was no more successful in stopping Mary's unquenchable spirit than were her parents.  In fact inadvertently he did the one thing that freed up Mary to pursue her desires.

He died.

Almost three years to the day after their wedding, Samuel Grieg shuffled off his mortal coil, leaving Mary a wealthy and independent woman.  She studied Mathematics and Astronomy in earnest, and won awards for her work in Diaphantine Equations.

She also fell in love. William Somerville was a surgeon and a scholar, who supported his brilliant wife.  To say she blossomed under this support would be an understatement.  She would later be called "one of the greatest women scientists England would ever produce."

After Mary's death in 1872, Queen Victoria installed Somerville College at Oxford University, this college exists to this day at Oxford.  And the Mary Somerville Scholarship for Mathematics is still handed out yearly at the school, one hundred forty years after her death.

In Irrational Numbers, Bonnie Pinkwater's gifted female students cheered at each of Mary Somerville's triumphs.  And truth be told, even as I write this, I'm tempted to do the same.