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.
Emile du Châtelet was a dramatic person whose lover was none other than Voltaire. In contrast Mary Somerville had a more sedate personality. This poses difficulties for an author who wants to give each person roughly equal coverage in a book, particularly when the more vivid personality needs to be covered first. Every death is tinged with sadness but Emilie’s death was sudden and tragic. In contrast the chapters covering Mary’s younger years following the account of the passing of Emilie brings the reader back to terra firma. There is a risk that the life of Emilie may overshadow the life of Mary in the reader’s mind as broadcaster, Ramona Koval, demonstrated in this interview of the author.
Could Robyn Arianrhod have handled the transition better? Possibly, but this shows the author’s priorities. She is committed to relating the history of these significant female Newtonian mathematicians. Sometimes history does not bend easily to the dictates of dramatic structure.
Robyn Arianrhod is also a mathematician. She truly appreciates the feats of the women she is writing about and displays the kind of empathy and insights that only a fellow mathematician could share:
It is utterly exhilarating to follow through a complex chain of reasoning and come to an absolutely certain conclusion that can be summed up in a single sentence, or to prove a complex statement in a few elegant, unassailable lines. But the path to such an achievement is often excruciatingly delicate… Solving new mathematical problems often involves pages and pages of calculations, each line of which must be absolutely correct. Something as simple as a missed minus sign thirty pages back can render the whole lot useless… Worse, the thrill of apparent success can be ruthlessly ripped away when one cautiously, meticulously, with beating heart, checks and rechecks an exciting conclusion, only to discover a tiny mistake buried deep within those arcane hieroglyphics. Emilie’s statement about needing a head and a constitution of iron is exactly right!
This book is not a literary biography. Robyn Arianrhod is more interested in understanding the mathematical minds of these women and the obstacles they had to overcome to produce their work, than exploring their whole lives or the periods in which they lived. She tells an entertaining story about their social world and domestic life where it impacted their mathematical endeavours but it is the maths and science that Mary and Emilie engaged with that is the focus of the book. Various scientific theories are discussed in the body of the book and a more thorough exposition of these theories can be found in the appendix. This works well. It allows the reader to choose how to read the book. There is enough other material of interest in the book for the reader who does not wish to explore the science in any depth, while those interested in understanding some of the scientific concepts discussed are also satisfied.
I agree with book reviewer, Lisa Hill, that the author’s overuse of the word ‘recall’ can grate. When she wants to draw the reader’s attention to something covered earlier in the book Robyn Arianrhod invariably says ‘recall that [name of person]…’ I was also irritated by the missing ‘to’ in phrases such as ‘write him…’
However, I disagree with Laura J Snyder who wrote in her review of this book, “Ms. Arianrhod insists on the all-too-common affectation of calling her female protagonists by their first names and the scientific men around them by their last. This has the unintended effect of infantilizing her heroines.” It is difficult researching women in history because they were generally referred to by their husband’s names with a female honorific. Which ‘Mrs John Smith’ in a historical account is the particular one that the researcher is interested in? Is ‘Mrs John Smith’ the wife or her mother in law? For most women in history their first name(s) are effaced in the archival records adding to the difficulty of researching women yet it this is the name that stays with them from birth to death. Mary Somerville started life as Mary Fairfax, then became Mary Greig before becoming Mary Somerville. Strictly speaking if Robyn Arianrhod was to refer to Mary Somerville correctly by her surname she would have to change the surname throughout the book as Mary married and remarried potentially confusing the reader. Historically gender is obscured by referring to a person by their surname only, which can lead to assumptions that the person being discussed must be male.
This book was very personal to me. The last birthday present that I gave to my father before he died was a biography of Newton complete with extracts from his Principa – an ideal present for my engineer father. This book made me think about him and his interest in the history of science. But I was astonished when I came to an explanation of the field of spectroscopy in the latter pages. My mother worked in spectroscopy laboratories after she left school so the word was already familiar with me (though unfortunately the science behind it was not). This prompted me to phone my mother and interview her about her work. Look out for a blog post about this next year.
This book has also reminded me how much I enjoy reading about the history of science. Scientists who I have read about before popped up in this book, such as some of the people covered by Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men. I must review that book next year. I am also looking forward to reading a biography about Mary Somerville by Dorothy McMillan when it is published. It will be interesting to contrast how a scholar of English literature approaches Mary Somerville’s life with the perspective given here by the mathematician, Robyn Arianrhod.
I recommend Seduced by Logic if you enjoy reading popular science books or if you are interested to know more about the contribution women have made to science.
This is my final review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2012. I am looking forward to the 2013 Challenge and have signed up already. If you would like to participate in this Challenge next year click here to sign up.
For all those reading this post on the 10th December, check out the Ada Lovelace google doodle. This is in recognition of the 197th anniversary of her birth. Ada Lovelace was born in 1815 and worked with Charles Babbage, the inventor of a precursor to the modern computer. She wrote a program for Babbage’s machine which is now recognised as the world’s first computer program. Mary Somerville mentored Ada Lovelace – a fact only mentioned in passing by Arianrhod.