Monday, September 22, 2008

Émilie du Châtelet: More Than Just a Pretty Face.

In 1737, Châtelet published a paper entitled Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu, based upon her research into the science of fire, that predicted what is today known as infra-red radiation and the nature of light. Her book Institutions de Physique (“Lessons in Physics”) appeared in 1740; it was presented as a review of new ideas in science and philosophy to be studied by her thirteen-year-old son, but it incorporated and sought to reconcile complex ideas from the leading thinkers of the time. In it she combined the theories of Gottfried Leibniz and the practical observations of Willem 's Gravesande to show that the energy of a moving object is proportional not to its velocity, as had previously been believed by Newton, Voltaire and others, but to the square of its velocity (E ∝ v²). The formula was later shown to be Ek = (1/2) mv², where Ek is the kinetic energy of an object, m its mass and v its velocity.

In the year of her death, she completed the work regarded as her outstanding achievement: her translation into French, with her own commentary, of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, including her derivation from its principles of mechanics the notion of conservation of energy.

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