Books : reviews

Robyn Arianrhod.
Seduced by Logic: Emilie Du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution.
OUP. 2011

Now part of the fabric of our understanding of the universe, Newton’s theory of universal gravity was once seen as a subversive idea that wrenched man from his age-old place at the center of the universe, replacing the ancient religious and metaphysical framework of natural philosophy with the logic of mathematics. For two remarkable women, however, this controversial theory was exhilarating and liberating: it marked the beginning of theoretical science as a predictive, quantitative, and secular discipline, and altered forever the way we see the world. Robyn Arianrhod’s Seduced by Logic is the story of these women, and of the radical ideas that inspired them.

When Newton pubiished his revolutionary theory of gravity, in his monumental Principia of 1687, most of his Continental peers rejected it. But the brilliant French aristocrat Émilie du Châtelet and some other early eighteenth-century Enlightenment colleagues realized the Principia had changed everything. Émilie collaborated with her lover, Voltaire, in furthering Newton’s ideas in France, and her translation of the Principia is still the accepted French version of this groundbreaking work. Almost a century later, in Scotland, Mary Somerville taught herself mathematics, and rose from genteel poverty to become a world authority on Newtonian physics. She was fêted by the famous French Newtonian, Pierre Simon Laplace, whose six-volume Celestial Mechanics was considered the greatest intellectual achievement since Principia. Laplace’s work was the basis of Mary's first book, Mechanism of the Heaven; it is a bittersweet irony that this book, written by a woman denied entry to university because of her gender, remained an advanced university astronomy text for the next century.

Combining biography, history, and popular science, Seduced by Logic not only reveals the fascinating story of two incredibly talented women, but also brings to life a period of dramatic poetical and scientific change. Arianrhod illuminates the science behind the story of Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Somerville, whose accomplishments forever altered the perception of women in science, and explores the intimate links between the unfolding Newtonian revolution and the expansion of intellectual liberty.