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.

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