Seduced by Logic by Robyn Arianrhod

Seduced by Logic is an impressively far-reaching book. At its heart is a double biography of Emilie du Chatelet (‘wonderfully outrageous’) and Mary Somerville (‘charmingly subversive’) who were both brilliant autodidacts and mathematicians. In her introduction, Robyn Arianrhod, herself a mathematician at Monash University, explains that ‘the very existence of these women was enough to encourage me to believe that I too could succeed.’

Both women were, specifically, authorities on Newtonian mathematical physics, and, more generally, very original thinkers: du Chatelet in France in the eighteenth century, and Somerville in Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, both encountered difficulty as women, in being recognised for their brilliance and hard work, although they did not go unnoticed.

Du Chatelet was an aristocrat who took Voltaire as her lover. She mixed enlightenment philosophy with mathematics. According to Arianrhod, ‘she was as scandalous in her sex life as she was extravagant in her manner of dressing’. Her relentless desire for knowledge culminated in her being the first person to translate Newton’s Principia into French shortly before her death. Somerville was a more sober character, but no less of a polymath. She became genuinely famous in her lifetime for her clearheaded mathematical writings.

A comparison between the two women’s lives provides the book with its structure, but does not limit its content. Arianrhod takes the wide scope of her book as an opportunity to discuss Newtonian mathematics, the history of the Enlightenment, and women’s education, to name just a few of her subjects. And no matter what the topic, her prose is natural, graceful and lucid.

In the final chapter, she suggests that, ‘in a sense theoretical physics is ultimately about language, especially mathematical language, rather than about “reality” itself.’ If this is the case, judging by her control of language, Arianrhod must be a particularly good theoretical physicist.

William Heyward is from Readings St Kilda.