Friday, June 22, 2012

What had I not heard of Mary Somerville?

A suggestion for a Google Doodle for Speaking Up for Us.

26th December 2012
Mary Somerville's 232nd Birthday

Other possible dates: 29th November 2012: 160 years since Mary Somerville died. 

Notable events: 
1831 - publication of "The Mechanics of the Heavens"
1832 - invention of the word "scientist"
1834 - publication of "On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences"
1836 - admission to RAS (with Caroline Herschel)

Mary Somerville, portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1834. From the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was an innovative and talented science communicator, with an extraordinary (and mostly self taught) grasp of mathematics in an era when most women had no access to formal education. As a direct result of her work, calculus was introduced to the English speaking scientific world, the idea of physics (as a single subject containing topics such as optics, thermodynamics and astronomy) was invented, and the term "scientist" was coined to describe people who studied the various sciences.

In 1826 Mary Somerville became the first women to author a scientific paper published by the Royal Society (which was possible through her second husband's membership of the society), discussing her work in trying to understand the properties of the UV radiation from the Sun. The success of this work led to her being invited to translate into English Laplace's last work "Mechanique Celeste", which was already at the time considered to be the most significant advance in understanding celestial mechanics (applying the "new" mathematics of calculus to solve several previously intractable problems) since "Newton's Principia." Mary took four years in the translation, but instead of a direct version of the book, significantly reorganized how it was presented to make it more lucid, and even in some cases, used her own proofs rather than Laplace's. This translation is credited with bringing the "continental methods" of calculus to English speaking students of Mathematics. And it's introduction was published separately for a public audience, becoming so popular that it remained in print for 50 years!

Mary's next project was "The Connexion of the Physical Sciences" (1834), a book which aimed to bring to popular (and female) audiences an overview of how universal laws of physics could be used to explain many branches of science (e.g. matter, optics, hear, electricity, magnetism and astronomy). This book was acclaimed by scientists and general readers alike, and made Mary truly famous in her day, selling thousands of copies. It's basically the invention of the idea of physics as we understand it, and also led to the invention of the term "scientist".

In the book one of the things Mary explained was that the laws of physics could explain the predictable and stable orbits of the planets. At the time Uranus had just been discovered, and its orbit was known to show discrepancies from predictions. Mary explained this by "possibly it [Uranus] may be subject to disturbances from some unseen planet revolving about the sun beyond the present boundries of our system". Supposedly Adams told Mary's husband that this line inspired him to "calculate the orbit of Neputune", although some doubt remains as to this claim. What is clear though is that Mary had the idea, and would have been capable of making the calculation which predicted the existence of Neptune. We can only speculate why she did not.

The fame of these works led to Mary Somerville being one of the first women admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. At the time female members were against the rules, but the society in 1836 initiated a new rank of "Honorary Member" specifically to be able to admit Mary Somerville and Caroline Herschel (30 years Mary's senior). 

Despite all this I was unaware of Mary's contribution to science until I started searching for a Google Worthy Woman to write about. I stumbled across her mentioned in the same sentence as the much more famous Caroline Herschel, and was immediately intrigued. I find it interesting (and disappointing) that she is often described in relation to her husband(s) and father. For example the caption to the beautiful portrait above says:

Mary Fairfax was the daughter of a naval officer and born in Jedburgh. As was customary for young ladies, she received very little formal education. Yet she taught herself algebra in secret and, as a young wife and mother, she continued to study mathematics. Widowhood at twenty-seven gave her the independence to develop her intellectual interests and her second husband, William Somerville, proved more supportive than her first. Somerville’s particular contribution to nineteenth-century science lay in her powers of analysis and explication rather than original research. She translated Laplace’s ‘The Mechanism of the Heavens’ into English and wrote a bestselling book on physics. After her death, Somerville College in Oxford was named in her honour.

Mary married twice - first to a Captain Samuel Greig, with whom she had two children before he died after 3 years of marriage. By accounts Captain Greig was not supportive of Mary's study of mathematics, but she continued anyway. As a young widow she had more freedom to suit herself (although also we should point out also two young sons to look after), and when in 1812 she married Dr. William Somerville he turned out to be much more supportive of her work. She had four more children (all girls) with Dr. Somerville, who also brought the son of a former marriage to the family. One of her sons died in infancy, and her eldest daughter (who she called "a child of intelligence and acquirements far beyond her tender age") died at age 10. Her eldest remaining son became a barrister and scientist, and Mary lived with her 3 adult daughters (who never married) until she died.

I stumbled across some wonderful quotes from Mary while researching this:
"Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind"
"Age has not abated my zeal for the emancipation of my sex from the unreasonable prejudice too prevalent in Great Britain against a literary and scientific education for women" - age 90.

And quotes about her:
Was she "an astronomer and mathematician of underused talents?" - Mary Bruck (1996)
"the Jane Austen of science" - Alan Chapman

"The Lost Women of the Royal Society", by Richard Holmes for The Observer (Nov 2010).
Chapter 6 of "Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy", by Mary Bruck (Springer)
Wikipedia page on Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville's Portrait at the National Gallery of Scotland.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A bit more on the transit of Venus

A couple more fun things on the Transit of Venus.

First, a blog post about actually using measurements to calculate the distance to the Sun: Easter Island Transit of Venus, by David Rodriguez.

I particularly like this plot, showing the timing measurement versus position relative to the centre of the Earth:

And the calculation isn't bad, 151+/-20 million km. Only a factor of 10 error larger than the best scientists in the world could do in the 18th century.

 Also really neat is this 3D image made by Peter Lawrence (@Advertvision on twitter) which uses image of the transit taken almost simultaneously in the northern Norway (by Pete) and Australia (by expert imager Paul Hause). You can see the parallax of Venus on the disc of the Sun with your own eye, and use red-green 3D glasses to see it in 3D. Must find a pair... :)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Transit "Expedition"

Given how much time I've spent lately trying to interest others in the transit of Venus, I got pretty excited myself, so I couldn't resist a trip out to Langstone Harbour on the East coast of Portsea Island to try to get a view. I was tempted out of the house by some tantalising gaps in the cloud on the sunrise horizon.

This great tool which shows the direction and altitude of the Sun's path during a day can show you where I was. Sunrise of course to the North East this close to the Solstice (only due East on the Equinoxes).

Unfortunately it stayed cloudy most of the time. I got a glimpse of the part of the Sun on which Venus was transiting (through my safety glasses), but not long enough to spot the small disk of Venus. Below is a storify of my transit of Venus 2012 experience, including some pictures I took of the clouds! ;)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Transit of Venus Activity on HMS Warrior, 1.30pm and 2.30pm on Tuesday 5th June

Here are details of our transit of Venus activity taking place on board HMS Warrior this Tuesday 5th June 2012 at 1.30pm and 2.30pm. This event is free with a valid entry ticket to HMS Warrior. PLEASE NOTE: it really is Tuesday not Monday. The BBC Things To Do Listing should update soon.

Here is the listing on the HMS Warrior Site.

I made the below worksheet to give out at the event. We'll also have a solar telescope, and safe solar viewers to give out.

Madame Wu - The First Lady of Physics

Ann Martin has started the blog Speaking Up  to hi-light the amazing women who are not being honoured by Google Doodles. Ann tells us that in the USA to date Google has honoured 15 individuals, and not a single woman. She says internationally, they have honoured 50 men, and 6 women in 2012.

Here in the UK Doodles in 2012 have honoured 17 men, and 0 women (count them for yourself at the link I have, it actually is quite amazing). We're even trailing the USA.

Ann's blog each month hi-lights some of the amazing women with birthday's that month who could have been honoured.

From her May article, I was particularly struck by the last entry - that of Chein-Shiung Wu (or Madame Wu, sometimes called the First Lady of Physics). She would have been 100 years old yesterday (born May 31st 1912).

Chien-Shiung Wu. Photographer unknown.

Chien-Shieng Wu is one of the 16 women profiled in a book I own called "Nobel Prize Women in Science", by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne. The edition I own was published just after the 1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to German Scientist Christiane Nusslein-Volhard and included a new chapter on her (the 16th). Those 16 women at the time included all 11 women to have won a Nobel Prize in science at that time (compared to around 500 men), plus 5 other women who played a critical role in a Nobel Prize winning piece of research but for some reason were not included in the honour.

Wu is one of these latter women. She was heavilly involved in the research which won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics (granted to Tsuang-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang) for demonstrating that parity is not conserved in interactions involving the weak force. Simply explained Lee and Yang proposed the experiement and Wu provided the experimental expertise to actually do it. That distinction was the justification the Nobel Committee gave for ignoring her contribution.

She did however win many other honours, in a time when it was doubly difficult for her as both a female physicist and a Chinese-American during a time of significant anti-Asian sentiment in the USA. She was the first Chinese-American elected to the National Acadamy of Sciences, the first female lecturer in Physics at Princeton among many other firsts.

Definitely a women we should all remember on the occasion of her 100th birthday!