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Dear IEEE members,

You re invited to our upcoming evening talk by Robyn Arianrhod on "Émilie du Châtelet and Mary Somerville: Heroines of Mathematical Science".

Last year was the 325th anniversary of the first publication of Newton’s Principia, the book that established the paradigm of modern theoretical physics. The first translation of Principia from Latin into a living language other than English was made by the fabulous, feisty French marquise, Émilie du Châtelet. She was largely self-taught in mathematics and physics – and she railed against the injustice that denied women a proper education, let alone a place in mainstream intellectual life; despite the obstacles, however, she became a respected expert on both Newton’s work and that of his rival Leibniz. In her short lifetime, she published an influential book and two scientific commentaries in addition to her translation of the Principia – but at the same time, she antagonized many people, men and women alike, because of her ‘unfeminine’ ambition and her ‘outrageous’ way of life (she lived openly with her lover Voltaire).

During the 1730s, Émilie and Voltaire were leading proponents of Newton’s theory of gravity at a time when it was still controversial on the Continent. In hindsight, the arguments against Newton's theory are fascinating because they give us a renewed appreciation of the innovative brilliance of his blueprint for creating quantitative, testable physical theories – a blueprint that still influences all of us who work with applications of theoretical physics. This talk will discuss these scientific controversies in the context of Émilie and Voltaire’s life and work – and it will then follow the progress of these ideas by introducing the charmingly subversive Mary Somerville, who worked a century later.

Mary Somerville is an amazing heroine of mathematical science, because she was entirely self-taught, and yet her scientific books and papers included a cutting-edge exposition of Laplacian celestial mechanics that was used as an advanced textbook at Cambridge. At that time, women were not allowed to study at Cambridge (or at most universities around the world), and Mary became a celebrity for writing a book that only elite male scholars could understand. She also wrote best-selling popular science books. She was a friend of Faraday, Young, and other leading scientists, and she helped popularize not only Newton and Laplace but also Faraday's new electromagnetic discoveries, Young's wave theory of light, and much more. Later, Maxwell, too, praised her books, and she became widely admired as ‘the Queen of Science’.

Robyn Arianrhod is a writer and mathematician. She received her doctorate (in applied mathematics) for her work on Einstein’s theory of gravity, and taught for many years in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University, where she is currently an Adjunct Research Fellow. Her books, Einstein's Heroes: Imagining the World Through the Language of Mathematics and Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution, have been published internationally, and have been shortlisted for several literary awards.

Best regards,

Women in Engineering Committee
IEEE Victorian Section

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IEEE's Women in Engineering Group (Victoria) is dedicated to promoting the importance of women in engineering, increasing career opportunities and providing a professional, social, and support network for women.