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Somerville, Mary,

popular mathematics royal physical

née Fairfax , formerly Greig (1780–1872) Popular writer on scientific subjects.

Mary Fairfax was born in Jedburgh, Scotland, the daughter of an officer in the Royal Navy. She had little education, but taught herself French, Latin and Greek late at night to avoid parental criticism. Introduced to algebra by a ladies’ magazine article, she began her mathematical education by studying work, smuggled to her by her younger brother’s tutor. Her parents objected to her mathematical studies and removed the candles so that she could not read at night, so she memorized the problems and worked them in her head.

This self-education was halted in 1804 with her first marriage but, widowed after 3 years, she returned to Scotland and renewed her studies. William Wallace, professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, taught her further mathematics and she studied Principia . Her second husband, William Somerville, a former army doctor, approved and encouraged her scientific interests. They moved to London and she began to study current work in mathematics and astronomy. Through her husband, a Fellow of the Royal Society, she met the major international scientists, who appreciated her ability. The Somervilles were popular hosts and she combined caring for her six children with her studies, entertaining, socializing and writing.

Mary Somerville, able to understand and discuss recent scientific developments with researchers, and sometimes to suggest useful directions for future investigation, was ideally placed to write in the field of popular science said of her that she ‘put into definite, intelligible and communicable form, the guiding ideas that are already working in the minds of men of science . . . but which they cannot yet shape into a definite statement’. She published on astronomy, physics, mathematics, chemistry and geography.

Her work began when Henry Brougham asked her to translate Mécanique céleste for his Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It was said that perhaps 20 men in France and 10 in England could read and understand Laplace’s work. Somerville translated, condensed and simplified it, and her Mechanism of the Heavens was published in 1831. Its high level of mathematics reduced its general sale. However, it became the recommended reading for mathematical students at Cambridge and was a standard text for the rest of the century. She had popular success with On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), in which she stressed the increasing interdependence of the various branches of science, covering physical astronomy, mechanics, magnetism, electricity, heat and sound. In a later edition she repeated a suggestion current among astronomers that analysis of the perturbations of Uranus might yield the orbit of an unseen planet. , while an undergraduate, read her comment and computed the orbit of the hypothetical planet, later to be found and named as Neptune. Her third book Physical Geography (1848) surveyed geology, topography, hydrography, meteorology, ocean-ography, geographical botany and zoology and became her most popular book; it was used widely as a textbook. In 1869 Somerville received the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. After her death one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford was named in her memory.

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