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.|
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 SomervilleMany 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
"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
I perceived, however, that astronomy did not consist [of just] stargazing* - Mary Somervillewith 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.
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.