Sunday 15 June 2014

Mary Somerville, the first scientist

Mary Fairfax was born in 1780, the daughter of a British admiral Sir William Fairfax. In keeping with her times and class, her brothers were educated for university while she was expected to learn how to sew and look pretty enough to secure a husband. Unfortunately for everyone's peace of mind she developed a passion for mathematics and physical science while still a child.  Her father returned from yet another stint at sea to find that his elder daughter was 'a savage' and sent her across the Firth of Forth to a boarding school for ladies at Musselburgh.  She spent her tenth year there learning the rudiments of French and English grammar and little else. When she was allowed to leave she felt "like a wild animal escaped out of a cage", and that was the end of her formal education.  A few years later, her art teacher introduced her to Euclid, so that she could master perspective, but she found the mathematics a much more interesting challenge than getting her painting correct.  She scrabbled an education eavesdropping on her brother's lessons with m'tutor and was often quicker at the answers than he was.

She married a naval officer, Samuel Grieg, in 1804 who shortly afterwards died leaving her with a substantial inheritance and two sons. This gave her an independence uncommon in those days when a woman might be transferred from father to husband at marriage along with some furniture and couple of horses. In 1812 she married William Somerville an army doctor with an interest in science and he was much more positive in his support of her researches than the men of her previous lives.  The couple travelled and met many of the great men of science of the day, including Jean-Baptiste Biot and Pierre-Simon LaPlace.  Laplace was a giant of science in his day, called the French Newton, le meilleur mathématicien de son temps en France and other flattering terms.  All you chaps who have jumped on the Bayesian statistics band-wagon should realise that it was Laplace who really thrashed out this branch of probability.  After an earnest to-fro about the physics of space between Mary Somerville and Laplace he is supposed to have said "There have been only three women who have understood me. These are yourself, Mrs Somerville, Caroline Herschel and a Mrs Greig of whom I know nothing."  Ho ho: make that two women, M.Laplace.

Mary Somerville went on to translate Laplace's Mécanique céleste into English, but more importantly her The Mechanism of the Heavens elaborated and illustrated Laplace's great work so that it was readily understandable by people who didn't have a brain the size of a planet: it was read with advantage by people who were fluent in French. This provided an enormous service to the progress of science: making things easier to understand is not the same as dumbing it down.  Or as she said "I translated Laplace's work from algebra into common language". She had found her métier - the exposition of science.  She went on to write three more immensely readable books "On the Connection of the Physical Sciences" (1834); "Physical Geography" (1848); "Molecular and Microscopic Science" (1869) which all made money for their publishers.

In his review of  On the Connection of the Physical Sciences in 1834, William Whewell coined the word scientist because clearly "men of science" was no longer able to ring-fence all the workers at the coal-face of science.  I think she was a woman you had to know to appreciate. The record shows that she didn't make any big discoveries herself but she made an enormous impression upon her contemporaries.  Shortly after her death, a committee of Oxford dons named a new non-denominational college for women after her.  Somerville College is now co-educational but has a startling list of alumni including Britain's only female Nobel scientist  Dorothy Hodgkin.

The Blob's Women in Science listing.

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