Visions of Science: Mary Somerville

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his remarkable Inventing the Flat Earth (1991), wrote that the “Flat Error,” the myth that medieval thinkers insisted that the earth was flat, continues to survive because, firstly, we wittingly or unwittingly “repeat and propagate errors of fact or interpretation”; secondly, we are often led by our “biases more than by the evidence”; thirdly, we blindly privilege certain systems over others; fourthly, our assumptions about “progress” leads us to “devalue the past in order to convince ourselves of the superiority of the present”; and finally, such “myths” take on a “life of their own, creating a ‘cycle of myths’ reinforcing one another.” Most recently, Maria Popova, the author of the usually excellent Brainpickings blog, in celebrating the life of Mary Somerville (1780-1872), has fallen into such blunders. On her Twitter account, Popova claimed that the word “scientist” was coined for a woman, that being Somerville. She then links the tweet to a specious article with an entirely misleading hook:

Not only did Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville (December 26, 1780—November 28, 1872) defy the era’s deep-seated bias against women in science, she was the very reason the word “scientist” was coined: When reviewing her seminal second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which Somerville wrote at the age of 54, English polymath and Trinity College master William Whewell was so impressed that he thought it rendered the term “men of science” obsolete and warranted a new, more inclusive descriptor to honor Somerville’s contribution to the field.

Thony Christie, at The Renaissance Mathematicus, has done a fine job debunking Popova’s claim, and has himself written some insightful comments about Somerville. In brief, Whewell did not coin the word “scientist” on Somerville’s behalf. Besides, according to Sydney Ross’ excellent article, “Scientist: The Story of a Word” (1962), British men of science detested the word. “To them,” Ross wrote, “the word scientist implied making a business of science; it degraded their labours of love to a drudgery for profits or salary.” The Duke of Argyll regarded the word with “great dislike,” as did Grant Allen and Lord Rayleigh. John Lubbock had never used it himself, and preferred the old word “philosopher.” And Thomas Henry Huxley was quite unequivocal: “To any one who respects the English language, I think ‘Scientist’ must be about as pleasing a word as ‘Electrocution.'”

Mary Somerville
The Brilliant Mary Somerville

At any event, another insightful guide is, of course, James Secord’s Visions of Science (2014), particularly his fourth chapter, which is dedicated to Mary Somerville. Since my knowledge of Somerville was very limited, after reading Secord’s chapter I spent most of the day reading various articles and works on Somerville, some already cited in Secord, and some not. Besides the ones cited in Secord, which I will mention below, I have found useful Elizabeth C. Patterson’s “Mary Somerville,” The British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 4, no. 4 (1969); Claire Brock’s “The Public Worth of Mary Somerville,” British Society for the History of Science, vol. 39, no. 2 (2006); and Patricia Fara’s “Mary Somerville: A Scientist and her Ship,” vol. 32, no. 3 (2008). In addition, some contemporary sources, for example, “Mrs. Mary Somerville, The Leisure Hour (Oct 7, 1871); “Mrs. Somerville,” The Illustrated Review (Dec 1872); The Morning Post (Dec 2, 1872); The Times (Dec 2, 1872); “Mrs. Somerville,” The Saturday Review (Dec 7, 1872); The Athenaeum (Dec 13, 1873); The British Quarterly Review (Jan, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” The Quarterly Review (Jan, 1874);The Academy (Jan 3, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” Chambers’s Journal (Jan 17, 1874); “Mary Somerville,” Good Words (Dec, 1875); “Mary Somerville,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Jun, 1888); and finally “An Evening with Mrs. Somerville,” The Leisure Hour (Nov, 1892), have also increased my understanding of Mary Somerville’s life and work.

Secord is an authority on Somerville. In addition to this chapter, Secord is the editor of a nine-volume Collected Works of Mary Somerville, published by Thoemmes Continuum Press (2004). Of course, her most well-known works were The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834). “Connexion” is the operative word. After the discovery of the relation between electricity and magnetism in the 1820s, Secord tells us, “there were tantalizing indications of a unity underlying all physical phenomena.” The prospects of a “theory of everything” loomed large mid-century. The great physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), in his article “The Correlation of Physical Forces, Nature (1874), recognized this as Somerville’s aim, writing: “Mrs. Somerville’s book on the ‘Connection of the Physical Sciences’ was published in 1834 and had reached its eight edition in 1849. This fact is enough to show that there already existed a widespread desire to be able to form some notion of physical science as a whole.” According to Somerville, mathematics was the “most promising source of ultimate unity.”

Henry Brougham had approached Somerville in 1827 to write an accessible version of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s massive five-volume Traité de mécanique céleste (1798-1827) for English readers. Brougham, as we have seen, had an “almost unlimited hope for the possibilities of readers achieving enlightenment through self-education.” How best to make such a complex text accessible, he had no doubt that Somerville was up to the task. Brougham saw her as “someone who exemplified in her person the virtues of self-help that would be required more widely in the population if the proposed work was to succeed.”

Secord goes on to give a brief biography of Somerville, drawn from her own Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville, edited by her daughter Martha Somerville and published by John Murray in 1874. She was the only daughter of Admiral Sir William Fairfax, who initially opposed her natural curiosity. According to Patterson, she “grew up in the freedom of a hearty outdoor life, which fostered a robust constitution and an abiding interest in and love of plants and animals, but with so little formal education.” All together, Somerville had only twelve months of formal schooling. But she was an “Edinburgh belle,” attracting the best circles of Edinburgh society. Her first husband had a “low opinion of the capacity of…[the female] sex,” but “had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind.” He died in 1807. As a widow, she developed genial relationships with leading intellectuals. In 1812 she married again, this time to the more liberal-minded William Somerville, an army doctor and later physician to the Royal Hospital. William and Mary were enthusiastic travelers, making frequent Continental tours, where they both enjoyed the company of many European savants.

When Brougham approached Somerville, many other women had become well-known popularizers of science. Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Trimmer, Priscilla Wakefield, Jane Marcet, and Margaret Bryan were active popularizers during the first half of the nineteenth century. Bernard Lightman, in his erudite Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007) has called this group of female popularizers the “maternal tradition,” for they addressed themselves to an audience of uninformed women and children. Later, mid-century, the “maternal tradition” was redefined by a “golden age” of female popularizers of science, such as Arabella Buckley, Phebe Lankester, Sarah Bowdich Lee, Mary Ward, Anne Pratt, Anne Wright, Margaret Gatty, Rosina Zornlin, Mary Roberts, Jane Loudon, Elizabeth Twining, Lydia Becker, Mary Kirby, and others still. But as both Lightman and Secord point out, Somerville did not belong to the “maternal tradition.” She was atypical, writes Lightman, in the sense that she “addressed knowledgeable adults, including men.”

Indeed, her original publisher, Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, refused to publish her Mechanism because they feared it was too technical and voluminous. John Murray, who was a cordial friend of the Somervilles, published it in 1831, including her later Connexion in 1834. Both texts are made for drudgery reading, however. Dense, abstruse, and full of technical terms such as “apsides,” “ellipse,” “cosine,” “isogeothermal,” “perturbations,” “eccentricities,” leading to an extensive glossary, they are demanding reading. Somerville, moreover, continually revised her Connexion, later editions becoming “longer, more authoritative, didactic, and ponderous.” But as Secord points out, “the value of Somerville’s labours would not be in making French celestial mechanics accessible to the millions, but as a symbol.”

She had a “reforming zeal,” and was liberal minded both in politics and religion. She stressed the interconnections and interdependences found in nature. In some editions of her Connexion, a quotation from Francis Bacon appears on the title page, “No natural phenomenon can be adequately studied in itself alone—but, to be understood, it must be considered as it stands connected with all Nature.”

But the “most obvious and immediate significance of Connexion,” Secord tells us, “was theological.” Somerville had shown that the mathematical laws of French celestial mechanics need not lead to atheism or materialism. As Secord puts it, “the connected explanation of these laws provided by science is not seen as support for a thorough-going materialism, as it had been by Laplace, but rather as evidence of God’s all-knowing foresight.” Indeed, the Connexion closes with a profound declaration that mathematics is the highest form of theology:

These formulae, emblematic of Omniscience, condense into a few symbols the immutable laws of the universe. This mighty instrument of human power itself originates in the primitive constitution of the human mind, and rests upon a few fundamental axioms which have eternally existed in Him who implanted them in the breast of man when He created him after His own image.

Somerville had been raised within a Scottish Presbyterian tradition, but she “never could find God in formal church-going.” Rather, she found the “divine transcendence of God’s power” in the language of mathematics. Later in life she would became sympathetic toward the rational religion of the Unitarians. As Secord aptly puts it, “Somerville may have abandoned traditional Christianity, but she had replaced this by a passionate faith in a God who could be best understood through mathematics.” One final interesting element of Somerville’s thought that Secord draws our attention to is her ready acceptance of commercial progress and imperial expansion. As Fara also shows, “Somerville gave her name to a ship that carried British products around the world, and portrayed herself as an ideal role model for women and also an exemplar of European civilization.” Her Whig political leanings, her transcendent theology, and her rejection of the divinity of Christ, were combined with an English imperial ideology that viewed English society as civilization, progress, and the future of mankind.