The Queen of Science, Mary Somerville

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It’s not like women have not played an important role in pioneering science. In fact, despite the overwhelming male implications of the word ‘scientist’, the term was first ascribed to a female Scottish polymath, Mary Somerville. Up until the late 19th and 20th centuries, people — mostly men — connected with science were referred to as ‘natural philosophers’ or ‘men of science’. In the peculiar case of Mary Somerville, the term fell short — partly because she was, evidently, not a man and partly because her work encompassed diverse fields like astronomy, physics, mathematics and geography.

A Google Doodle celebrating Mary Somerville’s achievements, by artist Alyssa Winans

A Budding Scientist

Somerville was born in Fife, Scotland in December 1780, in a time where prejudices against female education were rife. As such, Somerville spent much of her early years at home, helping her mother with household chores. Although her mother taught her to read, Mary did not learn to write. At the age of 10, she attended a boarding school where she learned to write as well. Described as a ‘little savage’ by her father, Somerville exhibited traits that were not considered becoming of a woman. She displayed a budding fascination with the world around her and, when not occupied by domestic chores, spent time roaming the countryside, collecting shells and observing animals.  

Somerville’s first encounter with mathematics was purely coincidental. While attending a party, she picked up a fashion magazine and a puzzle therein caught her eye. The solution to the puzzle was a strange, confusing assortment of numbers and alphabets which piqued her curiosity. She turned to her brother’s tutor for his help and was introduced to algebra for the very first time. Under his guidance, Somerville delved further into the world of mathematics, occupying herself with books such as Bonnycastle’s ‘An Introduction to Algebra’ and Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, in spite of her family’s objections. Mary studied late into the night, only when she was sure everyone was fast asleep. Yet her nocturnal habits were soon discovered by her mother who noticed that the candles in the house were going missing.

In 1804, she married her distant cousin, Samuel Greig. The marriage was not a happy one, since Grieg did not think highly of Somerville’s interests. After his death in 1807, Somerville married another cousin, William Somerville, in 1812, who was more encouraging of her educational pursuits. The two moved to London in 1816 where their social circle included many prominent scientists such as astronomers Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel, physicist Thomas Young, and mathematician Charles Babbage.

The Beginning of a Legacy

Mary’s scientific career began to pick up momentum in the summer of 1825, when she carried out a series of experiments to explore the relationship between light and magnetism. She submitted her research paper to the esteemed Royal Society of London in 1826.  After Caroline Herschel’s paper on astronomy, it was the first paper by a woman to be read by the Society. Although the theory she proposed was eventually rejected in the coming years, it established her as an intuitive mind among the scientific community.

The following year, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — an organization which worked to make affordable books available to working class — requested Somerville to write a popularized translation of Laplace’s “Mécanique Céleste” (Treatise of Celestial Mechanics), which offered a mechanical interpretation of the solar system. Somerville translated and explained the mathematics used by Laplace, which even most prominent mathematicians in the country were unaware of. The translation she produced was her instant claim to fame and won her acknowledgement from many high-profile scientists. She went on to write a similar rendition of Newton’sPrincipia”.

Somerville published several scientific books over the course of her life. Her book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences” was an ambitious interdisciplinary work and linked astronomy, mechanics, electricity, heat, sound, magnetism and optics. The book sold 15,000 copies and was acclaimed as one of the best-selling scientific books of the 19th century. Following this feat, she was nominated to be the first female member of the esteemed Royal Astronomical Society (jointly with Caroline Herschel). Her book “Physical Geography” was a widely used textbook in schools and universities for the next half-century; it also earned her accolades from the Royal Geographical Society. “Molecular and Microscopic Science” was her last published scientific work wherein she explored the atomic world, plant life and animal life.

Despite her extensive scientific career, Somerville regretted not focusing mainly on mathematics and astronomy. According to her colleagues, she would spend hours sitting on the window-ledge in her room, keenly studying the night sky. She observed a wobble in the orbit of Uranus and suggested the possibility that another planet existed. It turned out to be correct, and her work inspired astronomer John Couch Adams’ calculations leading to the discovery of Neptune.

Despite her advancing age, Somerville did not give up her pursuit of knowledge. In fact, on the day she died in 1872, 92 of age, she was reviewing a research paper on quaternions.

‘The Queen of Science’

Somerville demonstrated unmatched aptitude for science writing and had a talent for explaining complicated concepts in a simple way. Somerville was also a pioneer of female education, advocating that it was “unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.” When the petition for allowing women to vote was put forth, Somerville was the first to sign it. She also mentored many aspiring scientists such as the young Ada Lovelace, who would go on to become the world’s ‘first computer programmer’.

A commemorative model of Mary Somerville

In honor of her contributions, The Morning Post named her the undisputed ‘Queen of Science’. Somerville College, Oxford, founded for women when they were prohibited from enrolling in universities, is her namesake. Furthermore, asteroid 5771 Somerville has been named after her. In 2016, the Institute of Physics introduced the Mary Somerville Medal and Prize for recognizing efforts in popularizing science. In 2017, she became the first non-royal to be featured on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 note. 

Females like Somerville may not be well-remembered by history, but their efforts and dedication have paved the way for countless other women in science. Somerville’s work continues to serve as a powerful testament to what a woman can accomplish against all odds.

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