Though there still aren’t enough women involved in physics, there are certainly are far more than there used to be. When I look back at my 1976, final year undergraduate group photograph at the Cavendish in Cambridge there are probably only around 5 per cent of the students who are female. (It’s a little difficult to tell, given the similarities in hair length favoured at the time.) Now it would be significantly higher. But go back over two centuries and what’s amazing is to find any woman who dared to make herself visible in the scientific arena.
Yet despite the widely voiced concerns that women’s brains would practically explode if faced with anything more than the fluffiest of science popularisation (the father of one of the main characters in this book, discovering her interest in maths, said ‘We must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straightjacket one of these days’) the two individuals at the heart of Robin Arianrhod’s book managed not just to learn about the physics of the day but to make important contributions.
The first is Émilie du Châtelet. She was worthy of a biography for her life alone, somehow managing despite being married to the aristocratic Marquis du Châtelet, to spend most of her married life in the company of the writer Voltaire (with another lover later on with whom she had a child, though, sadly, Émilie would die shortly after the birth). But she was also a great enthusiast for Newton’s work, doggedly acquired knowledge of mathematics to better her understanding (soon outstripping Voltaire) and writing an influential paper on what we would now think of as energy. Perhaps most remarkably she made what is still the only complete French translation of Newton’s brilliant but often impenetrable masterpiece, the Principia.
Scottish-born Mary Somerville, the second of Arianrhod’s characters, born 70 years later, had more of a middle class background (Arianrhod helpfully puts her on a par in both period and social status with Jane Austen and her principle characters), but still managed to go on to be a world expert on Newton’s work, both providing new insights for the many scientists who struggled with Newton’s sometimes painful obscurity and writing some of the first approachable popular science on the subject. While both woman were of a certain standing, and could not have broken through the way Faraday did from truly humble beginnings, the achievements of this pair when all of society and the scientific establishment was stacked against them was truly remarkable and it is excellent that their work is being detailed here.
Where I have a little concern with the book (as opposed to the subjects) is that Arianrhod sets out to give us too detailed a rendition. Dotting every i and crossing every t of a scientific life is necessary for an academic biography, but here it can get a little plodding at times. It is only because of this that I have not given the book more stars – it is impossible to fault the attention to detail of the biography, nor the interest of the subjects, but the book doesn’t quite have the page turning intensity that these women’s stories could have had with the right approach.
However, if you want to find out more about this remarkable pair of early female Newtonians, this is definitely the book to make you a very happy bunny indeed.