Seduced by logic

By Grant Jacobs 23/03/2012

My previous cat traded in a habit or two every six months or so for new ones. I sometimes think my reading does something similar.

For a last while I’d fallen into reading several books concurrently, something I generally don’t do. I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time guy. Nevertheless, while starting on the Robyn Arianrbod’s book on the history of two women mathematicians in late 19th century Britain, I was also simultaneously attempting to an eclectic mix of novels (one crime, one sci-fi) and a stack of travel guides, along with my usual scientific reading.*


Seduced by logic is Robyn Arianrbod’s biography of the work of two woman popularisers of science, Êmile du Châtelet and Mary Somerville.

Their common thread is their relationship with the ‘Newtonian revolution’. We see through the biography work that brought Newton’s science to wider acceptance.

Her descriptions of the importance of Newton’s work are, to my mind, excellent. It’s not easy to explain the conceptual basis of mathematical work using only words this clearly. Other mathematicians’, physicists’ and astronomers’ work are brought in to form the wider picture.

The historical and social contexts set the scene, with the growing intellectual (and political) freedoms from the state (or religion) presented through progress and disruptions of the players of the times. This includes the role of women, their opportunities to learn things academic and participate in academic life. There are also brief asides into issues familiar to those writing about science, as well as some interesting historical tidbits.

For all supporting context the book is dominantly a history of their work, the popularising of Newton’s science, rather than the two women’s lives (as the subtitle indicates it would be the case).

It some ways this is a book in two parts, the first (and longer) part being that about Êmile du Châtelet followed by Mary Somerville.

For all the good, I have a few quibbles too. The author has a habit of occasionally falling back to a lecturing / textbook style in passages – I would like to have to seen firmer editing here. For example, she opens a few too many sentences with the phrase ‘Recall that’ for my liking. (It reads as superfluous. if omitted ‘Recall that Newton showed…’, would become ‘Newton showed…’) While most of the physics was described well, I felt that some of the philosophical concepts of earlier physics were not introduced well enough for those that not already familiar with them. A problem here is that some of these concepts are alien today as they’ve been long been replaced.

She relates some of the difficulties of women in science at the time. What was presented was good, but left this reader wanting more. My suspicion is that the author wanted the book to be balanced, rather than labour on any one point for too long – fair enough. I hope to return to this in a later article on this blog, as I think it’s worth excerpting a few passages on this topic; I’ll link this with an update should it happen.

The body of the book is followed by an Appendix, which contains a introduction to various theories. Some contain a light ‘mathematical’ treatment, but they are very much textual discussions – I’d encourage readers not to overlook it.

Similarly, it’s easy to overlook that the Notes and Sources section has a few interesting tidbits on various aspects. The book is rounded out with a Bibliography and Index.

Seduced by logic isn’t trying to be a ‘light’ of popular science book. It will appeal best to those wanting a little depth to their popular history, something that makes them think. It’s very accessible and for the largest part gives a good feel for what these women were grappling with.


Another book on Êmile du Châtelet that I am aware of is Judith Zinsser’s Êmile du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment. My impression is that this book is much more a biographical history of the woman.

* Even though it might seem work-related to non-scientists, reading summary takes on other’s work is fun. There’s so many interesting little things being worked out on all sorts of subjects.

Book details

Author: Robyn Arianrbod

Title: Seduced by Logic – Êmile du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution

Publisher: University of Queensland Press, 2011

ISBN: 9780702237386 (pbk)

Other book-y stuff on Code for life:

Ancient books (or I’d rather be reading)

What books do you think geeks should read?

Teaching kids critical thinking

Printed books to become limited to up-market gifts?

Reviewing Deadly Choices

Some thoughts on book reviews (and the cat’s progress)

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