Mary Somerville

Mathematician, Astronomer

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Image Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips.
Image Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

  • BORN 26th December 1780 Jedburgh, Scotland, UK
  • DIED 29th November 1872 Naples, Italy
  • WORKED  Burntisland, Edinburgh and London, UK; Naples, Italy
  • HONOURS  Member of the Royal Irish Academy 1834; Honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society 1835; Presented with a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society 1869; Honoured by several non-UK scientific societies ; Commemorated in a bust, commissioned by members of the Royal Society and sculpted by Sir Francis Chantrey, which remains in the Royal Society to this day; Celebrated on Royal Bank of Scotland £10 notes from 2017.

Artistic Connections

As a girl, Mary Somerville had both painting and piano lessons.  Her landscape paintings decorated the walls of the family home, and were admired by visitors.  One visitor commented: “I am glad that Miss Fairfax has any kind of talent that may enable her to win her bread, for everyone knows she will not have a sixpence.”  Although she continued to paint, especially in watercolours, Mary herself had no illusions about her artistic ability. She admired the work of others, however, and frequently visited the studio of J. M. W. Turner where she much appreciated his watercolours.

Music

Title:  The Four Maries
Composer: Marie Dare
Words: Traditional
Written in:  (unknown)
For: 4 female voices
Performed by: Frances M Lynch

Yestreen the queen had four Maries, the nicht she’ll hae but three; 
There was Marie Seaton and Marie Beaton and Marie Carmichel and me

This song has nothing to do with Mary Somerville  – unless you take into account the 8 versions of it collected by her friend Sir Walter Scott. It has more to do with it’s composer, Marie Dare, and even more to do with Mary Queen of Scots. Just like the Queen, Somerville was proud of her appearance: “not-withstanding my love of science I like to be admired and dressed to look well”

MORE MUSIC  COMING SOON!

Education

Living at a time when the education of women was not encouraged, Mary Somerville was mainly self-educated. Being a curious child she determined to learn through reading and conversation and persisted with mathematics despite her father thinking it was bad for a girl’s health!
For one year, she was sent to a school run by Miss Primrose in Musselburgh where she learned accomplishments for young ladies, such as French, Italian, music, drawing and dancing, but where she was also forced to wear a metal support to keep her shoulders back.

Occupations

Self-educator
Following her first marriage to Samuel Greig, Mary Somerville continued her mathematical studies, although these were much disapproved of by her husband.  After Greig’s death three years later, she pursued her studies openly, and continued this all her life. Her second husband, Dr William Somerville, was very supportive, encouraging and taking pride in her learning.  He even copied out some of her manuscripts to save her time!

Mathematician, Astronomer and Physicist
Having read a number of key French mathematical, physical and astronomical texts recommended by the Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, Mary Somerville became very knowledgeable, and confirmed her level of ability by scientific writing, and in discussions and correspondence with eminent scholars and scientists.

Scientific Communicator, Translator and Interpreter
Mary Somerville had a particular ability to communicate and elucidate complex scientific concepts, making them far more easily read and understood.

Scientific Achievements

  • Mary Somerville’s major achievement was her annotated translation of Mécanique céleste, by Pierre-Simon Laplace. This mathematically superb work, published between 1798-1825, was said to be extremely difficult even for specialists to understand.  She was approached as one of the only people competent enough to make not only a translation of this work, but to add explanations and diagrams to make it more accessible.  Despite her own diffidence, her finished work, Mechanism of the heavens, was much praised by eminent astronomers, notably Sir John Herschel.
  • She produced three other scientific books: On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, (1834); Physical geography (1848); and On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). These appealed to a wide audience, especially because they were written for lay readers rather than scientific specialists. In addition, she wrote for scientific journals, not all of which published her name against the work. Two articles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1826 and 1846) related to the effect of the rays of the Sun, and a lengthy essay in the Quarterly review (1835) gave an account of Halley’s comet.
  • In the sixth edition of: On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, (1842), she speculated that if calculations and observations did not adequately describe the orbit of Uranus, there may be another unseen body whose mass and orbit were having an effect. This statement gave another astronomer, John Couch Adams, the idea of making mathematical calculations which predicted the existence and location of Neptune.
Did You Know?
  • She was celebrated as “Queen of Science” in her own day.
  • A ship built in Liverpool, which had her image as its figurehead, was named after her. Unfortunately that ship was lost at sea in 1852.
  • She painted her own self-portrait which you can see here .
  • She acted as a mathematical mentor to Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace.
  • She witnessed and graphically described eruptions of the Italian volcano, Vesuvius.
  • Although she was very knowledgeable in astronomy, the only telescope she ever possessed was a very small one, as she realised early that astronomical theory can be calculated mathematically.
  • Mary Somerville was undoubtedly an accomplished mathematician, yet she herself said that she was no good at arithmetic.  If she were adding up columns of figures, she said she seldom managed to get the same answer!
An Inspiring Woman

Mary Somerville’s Mechanism of the Heavens was introduced into the Cambridge University curriculum – the first scientific textbook written by a woman to be used in a British university.
Her name was given to Somerville College, Oxford.
By means of her engaging scientific writing, this remarkable woman helped many people to understand the science of her day. She was a public figure – would have been a celebrity in today’s culture – and her prominence showed that women were capable of pursuing intellectual careers.

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