Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A mentor of Ada Lovelace - Mary Somerville

This year for Ada Lovelace Day I want to write a little bit about Mary Somerville. I'm delighted to be able to say that a full article I have written on her will appear as a chapter in the next Women in STEM Anthology to be published by Finding Ada - the organisation behind the idea of Ada Lovelace Day. The book is being edited and likely to be available sometime next year.

So for this ALD2014 post I want to share a flavour of the fun I had learning about Mary Somerville in order to write that chapter. One coincidence - I happened to be in Edinburgh while I was working on the chapter, and so decided to visit Mary's portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Sadly I couldn't manage a visit her childhood home in Burntisland, but I got a view of from a boat tour on the Firth of Forth.

Me and Mary - her portrait at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Mary is such an accessible character, someone I think many women today could imagine being - I know I could. She was of a similar age to Jane Austen which probably helps. I'm a huge fan of Austen's books (and the many film and TV adaptations) so the environment in which Mary inhabited feels familiar even if very different to today. She was also a working mother (albeit presumably with a lot of help), which I can definitely relate to.

I read two versions of Mary's autobiography as I was writing the chapter, among other shorter descriptions of her life and work. The original "Mary Somerville: Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age, with selections from her correspondence" (available online from http://ebooks.cambridge.org/), was published not long after her death, and edited by her daughter Martha Somerville. Certain passages were removed which Martha felt reflected badly on her mother, so many claim the more recent "Queen of Science: Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville, edited and introduced by Dorothy McMillan is the better version. 

I decided to title the chapter: "Mary Somerville: Thoughts of what she might have been", based on a quote I found in Mary's 1873 obituary (published by the Royal Astronomical Society):
“We shall never know certainly, though it may be that hereafter we shall be able to guess, what science has lost through the all but neglect of the unusual powers of Mary Fairfax’s mind. We may rejoice that, through and accident, she was permitted to reach the position she actually attained; but there is scarcely a line of her writings which does not, while showing what she was, suggest thoughts of what she might have been.” 
Writing about Mary revealed to me both a story of great triumph (she was after all feted in her day - the first women to have a scientific paper read at the Royal Society, one of the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and an accomplished author of four popular science books on topics as diverse as calculus, physics, microbiology and geology), and great frustration. I found it too easy to hear in her own words the fury she felt at how difficult it all was for her and other women who wished to be educated. She was largely left unschooled as a girl (while her brothers studied, as was typical at the time), and it was only as an independent young widow that she could begin her proper training in the mathematics she loved. 
"I was intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt it in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low. " - Mary Somerville
Many have focussed on the successes of Mary (which were exceptional), but I also felt her sense of loss at what more she might have done.

"I never made a discovery myself, [] I had no originality" - Mary Somerville
Although I think in that she was a bit harsh on herself (considering she invented the idea of physics as a combined subject, as well as bringing calculus to common use in the English speaking world). It seemed to me she was also frustrated by the pressure she felt as a successful science writer to cover topics she was less keen on than her favourite:

"Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful" - Mary Somerville
As a professional astronomer I also could resist this one last quote from Mary recollecting when she first discovered astronomy as a mathematical subject:

I perceived, however, that astronomy did not consist [of just] stargazing* - Mary Somerville
with the delightful footnote, expressing so common a sentiment among professional astronomers today: 

* "Many people evidently think the science of astronomy consists entirely in observing the stars, for I have been frequently asked if I passed my nights looking through a telescope, and I have astonished the enquirers by saying I did not even possess one."  - Mary Somerville.

Mary was more that 30 years older than Ada Lovelace, who she did know, and appears to have been somewhat of a mentor for. The two women met at a party held by Charles Babbage in 1833, and Mary at that time advised the then 18 year old Ada to study mathematics. Over the next 19 years Ada stayed with Mary and her family several times and wrote to her regularly until her death in 1852 (extraordinarily Mary went on to outlive Ada by 20 years). It's a pity there's no picture of the two women together (although I did find this comic book depiction of them).

Anyway my chapter is all finished and the book is in the editing process right now and expected to be published some time next year, so stay tuned for that.

If you want more (from me) about Mary before that comes out, I have also written about her online before as part of Ann Martin's Speaking Up campaign (which has now successfully pointed out to Google Doodles how few women they have profiled): Midpoint Series: Karen Masters on Mary Somerville. In fact it was working out who I wanted to write about for that series that introduced me to Mary in the first place.