Mary Somerville

Mathematician, Astronomer

A black and white portrait of mathematician and physicist Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips.
Image Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.
Wellcome Images

  • 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.


This playlist includes all the music from Songs and Stories from The Somerville Connexion, a live performance of vocal music by electric voice theatre which illuminated the hidden lives of exceptional women whose worlds revolved around the Queen of the Sciences, Astronomer and Mathematician, Mary Somerville (1780-1872). These are songs by women composers spanning three centuries, and encompass some fascinating “connexions” between brilliant Victorian women scientists, novelists, artists, philosophers and musicians. The song texts include words by Somerville herself, as well as the mathematician Ada Lovelace and Sir Walter Scott. Highlights from this playlist are provided below…

Title: Sweet Power of Song
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Words by: Joanna Baillie
For: Tenor, baritone and piano
Performed by: Julian Stocker (Tenor) and Gwion Thomas (Baritone) with instruments realised by Frances M Lynch.
First Performed: unknown

Ordinarily we only work with music by women, but we’ve made an exception for Ludwig van Beethoven as Somerville loved to play his music on the piano – often practicing for hours – and Baillie was one of her closest friends, who like her, loved traditional music from these islands.

The image is of Joanna Baillie – an engraving by H. Robinson after a portrait by Sir William Newton (Public Domain)

Title: Dark Matters
Written: February 2019
For: Solo Mezzo Soprano and Orchestra
Performed by: Margaret Cameron with simulated orchestral instruments
First Performed: February 18th 2019 at the Old Kirk, Kirkcaldy Margaret Cameron and players from Kirkcaldy Orchestral Society conducted by Graeme Wilson as part of “ECHOES FAE FIFE” by ELECTRIC VOICE THEATRE

Dark Matters is based on research by contemporary astronomer Anne-Marie Weijmans. The galaxy featured in Frances’ piece is NGC 2974. It is an elliptical galaxy that is surrounded by a beautiful large ring of cold gas. By measuring the motions of the stars in the galaxy, and of the gas in the ring, Anne made a rotation curve: this is a graph that shows you the velocity versus the radius (distance from the galaxy centre). The rotation curve of NGC 2974 rises quickly and steeply in velocity from the galaxy centre outwards, and then remains flat. This shape of the rotation curve is reflected in Frances’ music. That the rotation curve is flat, means that at large distances from the centre the stars and gas still move around with high velocities, much higher than we would expect. We need invisible mass, dark matter, to explain the rotation curve of NGC 2974.

NGC 2974 is Anne’s favourite galaxy, as it is the first galaxy that she started working with as a PhD student in Leiden. She published her very first paper, featuring this galaxy in 2008, and now more than 10 years later, her PhD student Meng Yang in St Andrews has picked up this galaxy again to test her new method to map dark matter. So it just seems fitting that in 2019 this galaxy is in the spotlight again, both scientifically and musically!

Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)

…..above the surface of the earth, the noise of the tempest ceases and the thunder is heard no more in those boundless regions, where the heavenly bodies accomplish their periods in eternal and sublime silence” (Mechanism of the Heavens)

“……for aught we know, myriads of bodies may be wandering in space unseen by us, of whose nature we can form no idea, and still less of the part they perform in the economy of the universe.” (On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences)

Title: Mary, Mary, Mary Somerville
Words by: the composers
Written: January 2019
For: Children’s Voices and Guitar
Performed by: the composers with BBC singer Margaret Cameron and Herbie Clarke on guitar
First Performance: Kirkcaldy Old Kirk, Feb 22nd, 2019 as part of “Echoes fae Fife”, a Minerva Scientifica project by electric voice theatre

Aberdour is just a hop, skip and jump from Somerville’s home in Burntisland. The children re-imagined what her life there would have been like when she was the same age as them. Science researcher, Catherine Booth gave a talk about Mary to the children and they chose places they knew themselves, where Mary may have gone to observe the natural world – the Sea Shore, Bin Hill, The Links and the Harbour.

She had more freedom than most middle class children of her age and roamed around the coastline and countrysides collecting shells and fossils, investigating the world.

We are grateful to Ian Archibald at Burntisland Heritage Trust who helped us find all the locations and provided some wonderful insights into Mary’s childhood.

Frances M Lynch provided the chorus while the children split into groups and wrote a verse each! The song has proved so popular that it has been sung in all our following shows by primary schoo children who simply love it. We use a shorter version now, to fit it into the show – but you will find all of the original words on this pdf.

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”


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.


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.