Seduced by Logic: a review

Book cover of Seduced by Logic by Robyn Arianrhod

Seduced by Logic by Robyn Arianrhod, University of Queensland Press, 2011.

Robyn Arianrhod has written a fascinating history of science about two female mathematicians who played an important role in disseminating Newtonian physics in Europe.  Seduced by Logic is the tale of eighteenth century French aristocratic, Emilie du Châtelet, and Scottish woman, Mary Somerville, who rose to fame during the nineteenth century.   This is a history for the lay person about what these women did and how they thought mathematically.  It is about how women challenged stereotypes and confronted the kind of prejudice that still exists today.

For much of history women have been regarded as incapable of tackling science or maths. Consequently neither Emilie du Châtelet nor Mary Somerville received maths or science education while growing up.  Emilie and Mary had to learn by reading books and corresponding with mathematicians. Emilie was fortunate enough to be able to pay for personal tutors to teach her.

Emilie du Châtelet wrote a French translation of Newton’s treatise, Principa, complete with extensive commentary explaining the scientific developments arising from Newton’s ground-breaking work.  This was in the face of scepticism about Newton’s theories by many of the leading scientists of the day.  Her translation is still well-regarded today.  Mary Somerville’s translation and explanation of Celestial Mechanics written by the prominent French scientist, Pierre-Simon Laplace, was adopted as a textbook for students studying advanced astronomy at Cambridge University.  They did this despite being told from a very young age that women were not capable of thinking mathematically, despite the disapproval of some who regarded such work unladylike, despite not being able to join the scientific societies and universities which were the hub of much of the ground-breaking scientific debate.  The ambition, perseverance and the talent of these women was extraordinary. Continue reading