Today, we watch a mind fighting to get free. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Much is made of the respect
paid to women in 18th-century France. We're told of
fine conversation among men and women in the French
salons. There's no doubt that the intelligence and
charm of women was valued at those wonderfully
civilized gatherings. But underneath you found the
same conservatism that was more obvious in other
societies. Lynn Osen tells us that intelligence and
charm were not equated with real accomplishment.
In 1706 Emilie de Breteuil was born into this world
as the Marquise of Chatelet. She was an aristocrat
and trained in the graces. She knew the moves --
flirtation -- a quick wit. She was right for the
game, but for one flaw. Emilie was more than
quick-witted; she was flat-out brilliant.
Her precociousness came out in many ways: a fast
life-style, a string of affairs, a general
recklessness, an early marriage to a man much her
senior -- and an inclination to bury herself in
books when no one was looking. Overtly she played
the game, but under the surface she constantly
overplayed it. Her marriage put little constraint
upon her, and when she was 27, she took up an
extended and quite open affair with Voltaire. The
chemistry between Emilie and this greatest
intellect of the age was immediate and powerful.
Caught in public they were both light and
ebullient. Out of friend's eyes they could be found
talking, studying, writing, or doing experiments in
Voltaire's well-equipped laboratory. They both
could be found working furiously into the small
hours of the morning.
During their time together, Emilie wrote a paper on
the nature of heat, she created a French
translation of Newton's Principia, and
she strongly influenced the form and shape of
Voltaire's Candide. Then at the age of
almost 43 she conceived a child by yet another
lover. Voltaire helped to smooth it all over with
her husband. The child was born, and Emilie was
doing fine. Then suddenly and inexplicably she died
a few days later. Voltaire was there and he was
shattered by the loss.
Emilie's translation of Newton helped shape the
subsequent direction of French mathematics. Her
work on heat pointed the way to understanding the
role of wavelength in thermal radiation.
And her life is, for me, the bitterest condemnation
of a male-dominated society I've ever read. For
this woman realized that flouting the conventions
of family and home was the perfectly acceptable
smokescreen behind which she could hide her real
crime. That crime was having an exceptional mind
and absolutely having to put it to use.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds