Eiffel Tower Scientists - Focus on: Charles-Augustin de Coulomb & Émilie du Châtelet

Just because our headquarters are in the San Francisco now doesn’t mean we’re forgetting our Parisian roots. In fact, we were in the City of Lights until 2015, and some of our team still rests right beside Bastille, the location of the prison where the French Revolution began (oh la la!). To honor our heritage, we want to take a closer look at some details of a famed landmark which many Parisians don’t know exist: the names inscribed under the first balcony on the Eiffel Tower.

These names were written on all sides of the tower, all chosen by Gustave Eiffel himself, to commemorate some of the greatest French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in an attempt to combat the protest that the French people had against erecting the monument. This, unfortunately for Mr. Eiffel, did not have the desired effect: the names were painted over until 1986 when the Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE) wanted to return the tower to its intended design.

72 people were selected for this “invocation of science,” and sadly, not a single one is a woman. So, though we want to recognize the great STEM folk of France, I will also talk about some of today’s current, brilliant STEM femmes--one per inscribed name. If you know of any of today’s or history’s French ladies that you would like us to recognize, send me an e-mail here, otherwise, enjoy the crème de la crème of our scientific past.

Charles-Augustin de Coulomb

Coulomb is the second person with his name inscribed on the tower that I want to discuss with you. Why? If you sat in any physics class, this is a name you recognize. Coulomb’s law is one of the first that you learn about in school when you start electricity. It’s also conveniently the SI unit of electrical change that you probably have seen used here and again. Though this man made many contributions to physics and engineering, his main claim to fame is developing the law named, befittingly. 

This law is also called the inverse square law and is as follows (at least, the scalar form):

 

Easily enough, F is the quantity of the Force (in Newtons) of the repulsion or force between two stationary, electrically charged particles. Q1  is the value of object one (or particle one, in our definition) in Coulombs--I think you know who created this unit!--and Q2 is the second object that is reacting to the first one in a matter of attraction or repulsion quantity, naturally. R, as you may have predicted, is the distance between these two charges, then squared. Finally, ke is Coulomb’s constant which is valued at about 9×109 N m2 C−2, aka a proportionality constant.

This constant, and the equation in general, had major implications throughout physics and engineering including paving the way for the development of the theory of electromagnetism, deriving Gauss’ law, and understanding the skeletal structure of quantum physics--basically how atoms stay together and connect to others. In a way, it describes how life exists.

Émilie du Châtelet

Because Coulomb’s life was relatively void of any women, I want to instead recognize a woman who was brilliant during the time period that names were selected for the Eiffel Tower, certainly a woman whose name would not be out of place engraved in gold.

  1. Physics

Now, this woman was a philosopher, a physicist, a mathematician, AND an author among other things, but her is recognized mostly for her work in physics, notably on the basic laws that still hold true today. Du Châtelet’s translation of Principia, the book by Isaac Newton outlining the basic laws of physics continues to be the standard of French institutions, but her comments on the text are the amid the most valuable of her contributions. She recognized the implications of his notes, theories, and conclusions and developed and tested postulates on Newtonian mechanics such as on kinetic energy and on the theory of the conservation of total energy.

  1. Philosophy

As if these contributions weren’t enough to mark her place in history among the other great physicists and mathematicians, her work done for the philosophical realm is becoming known and, in fact, she held great influence during her time. She challenged Cartesianism, developed by Descartes and not widely disputed until the 17th century, and argued in favor of Newtonian physics. Descartes had also conclude that everything having to do with science stemmed from metaphysics whereas du Châtelet found everything physically relative and based on the natural world, so 2 + 2 could NOT equal 5, just because a metaphysical being decreed it.  

Emilie du Châtelet was doubtlessly a brilliant scientist and philosopher; she wore just as many hats as Coulomb, if not more AND her last name was under 12 letters in length. Therefore, there is not excuse for her name to be inscribed up on the Eiffel Tower alongside his. Instead, she is commemorated within the titles of schools, street names, subway stations, and theatres among the City of Lights. In the meantime, I look forward to her scientific and philosophical achievements coming into light brighter than her social relationships.