In the 1750s, when France was foundering scientifically in the Cartesian shallows, it took Emilie du Châtelet’s French translation of Newton’s Principia to reinvigorate Continental physical science. Then it was England’s turn to toss itself headlong into the longest period of scientific stagnation it has ever known. From the age of Newton, Harvey, Halley, Boyle, Hooke, and Wren, there stretched an agonizing century of nationalistic puttering. If England were to regain its mathematical groove, somebody would have to do for the British Isles what du Châtelet did for France.
Fortunately, somebody did. And her name was Mary Somerville.
She was born in 1780, the daughter of a chronically absent vice admiral of great renown but little fortune, and an indulgent mother who let her run wild. Her youth was an extended adventurous ramble through nature in the best Disney tradition, making friends with the birds of the forest until they ate crumbs from her mouth and affronting the sense of propriety of rich relatives. In her memoirs, she describes with picturesque whimsy the already vanishing colors of her Highlands youth:
“Licensed beggars, called ‘gaberlunzie men,’ were still common. They wore a blue coat, with a tin badge, and wandered about the country, knew all that was going on, and were always welcome at the farm-houses, where the gude wife liked to have a crack (gossip) with the blue coat, and, in return for his news, gave him dinner or supper, as might be… There was another species of beggar, of yet higher antiquity. If a man were a cripple, and poor, his relations put him in a hand-barrow, and wheeled him to their next neighbour’s door, and left him there. Some one came out, gave him oat-cake or peasemeal bannock, and then wheeled him to the next door; and in this way, going from house to house, he obtained a fair livelihood.”
At the age of eleven, her parents made a half-hearted attempt to civilize her, packing her off to a boarding school which featured, as part of its progressive program, an iron chassis that all children were required to wear to correct their posture. It forced the shoulder blades back until they touched, and featured an extra iron loop that pushed the chin back to a proper position. It was agony added onto the slow burn of the school’s uninspiring curriculum.
Mary returned from the school after a year, having apparently learned nothing whatsoever, and the experiment was mercifully ended. It wasn’t that Mary’s mind was dull, but rather it was her fate to have it constantly entrusted to guardians with no notion whatsoever of what to do with it. On her own, she learned Latin and piano and painting, and was distinguished in the pursuit of all three, but mathematics, which was to become the central love of her life, she knew not a wisp of until the age of 15, when she successfully engaged her brother’s tutor in the task of procuring for her a copy of Euclid’s Elements and a text on Algebra, it being socially impossible for a young lady to walk into a shop and purchase such items for herself without being the scandal of the town.
No thanks to her family, she finally had substantive, nourishing material to feed her brain, and she devoured it whole, staying up through the night studying her Euclid until the servants found her out and reported her late-night studies to her parents, who promptly forbid her the use of candles in an attempt to curtail her unfashionable obsession. Undaunted, Mary lay awake in bed, going over Euclid’s proofs from memory… which her parents also somehow found out about, and scolded her roundly for. Clearly, if her mind was to soar, it could not do so at home.
This suited her family just fine since, as readers of Regency fiction know all too well, the purpose of every early nineteenth century British female was a marriage that would relieve her parents of the burden of caring for her. Mary was handed off in 1804 to a, and I use the term loosely, man, by the name of Samuel Greig who looked with scorn on the intellectual capacity of all women, and scoffed at Mary’s attempts at furthering her education. Far from freeing her from the restrictions of her parents, marriage brought Mary nothing but further duties and discouragement.
Fortunately for us, the pustulent bastard passed away young, leaving Mary enough money to comfortably live modestly on her own. She moved back in with her family and, though still having to raise her children and assume responsibility for the organization of the household, she could now, for the first time in her life, learn at the pace she wanted. She was 26, and had the equivalent of a modern high school sophomore’s education in mathematics – the basic principles of algebra, a solid foundation in geometry, but as of yet no trigonometry, function theory, and certainly no calculus.
With the shackles off, however, Mary flew through all of the known fields of mathematics, and earned by the age of thirty a silver medal for her solution to a problem in the Mathematical Repository. One year later, in 1812, she married her cousin, the adventuring diplomat William Somerville, who was as kind and supportive as the loathsome arch-fiend Samuel Greig was cold and imperious. For the rest of his life, he dedicated himself to helping Mary however he could – in running down rare math texts at libraries, in copying her manuscripts, and in organizing trips to introduce her to the scientific elite of Britain and the Continent.
Actively encouraged for the first time in her life, and having picked up French (again, self-taught), she waded into the heart of French mathematics which had, since the mid eighteenth century, grown to dominance (Euler’s titanic contributions notwithstanding) under the steady brilliance of Lagrange, Poisson, Fourier, and especially the reigning genius of Laplace.
Laplace’s Mecanique Celeste was to the early nineteenth century what Newton’s Principia was to the late seventeenth – a magisterial accounting of the motions of the solar system harnessing the most powerful mathematical tools available. Newton, realizing that his audience could only be expected to trust and grasp so far the techniques of the calculus he invented, couched most of his arguments in pure geometric terms. Laplace, benefitting from the work in algebraic and functional analysis of Lagrange and Euler, was able to solve problems of greater difficulty and so to provide a breath-arresting, unified view of the long-term stability of the solar system.
Meanwhile, England had been dutifully spinning its wheels, completely out of synch with the dizzying speed of mathematical developments in France. Mary, however, had traveled to France and discussed Laplacean physics… with Laplace. She was hailed throughout Europe for the depth of her understanding in the deepest realms of mathematical physics, and when she at last returned to England, she was earnestly asked by Lord Brougham to prepare a work explaining Laplace’s theories to an English audience.
She began in 1827, at the age of 47, and did not complete the work until 1831. The resulting book, Mechanism of the Heavens, was a masterpiece that not only presented a translation of Laplace’s original two volume thunderbolt, but expanded it, filling in the sections where Laplace had somewhat condescendingly placed, “it obviously follows that…” when it was not obvious to anyone besides Laplace at all, and adding her own clear explanations of the consequences of Laplace’s thought.
The book was a magnificent success, eventually selling an astonishing (for the time) fifteen thousand copies and securing Somerville’s place in the first rank of British scientific minds. After a triumphal return tour through France, Mary settled down to write her second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, a tour de force review of all the cutting-edge work currently being done in the physical sciences, with Mary explaining the interconnection of all this astonishing new knowledge. It contained everything from the latest discoveries about the connections between electricity and magnetism to the gravitational consequences of the Earth’s oblate spheroid shape. The book tore through multiple editions and served as an introduction for a new generation of British scientists into the emerging mysteries and puzzles of experimental and theoretical science. James Clerk Maxwell, the giant of late nineteenth century physics, praised the book explicitly for its role in reinvigorating British scientific interest.
Somerville was already 56 by the time Connexion was published, an age when, statistically, she should have been either dead or at the very least far beyond any sort of creative prime. And yet, she continued to study and write up to her death at the age of 92. In her third book, Physical Geography, written in 1848, she risked the wrath of the established Church by advocating on behalf of the Old Earth geologists in the first ever English-language popular review of geology. Then, in 1869, at the age of EIGHTY… NINE… she published On Molecular and Microscopic Sciences, the least successful of her four major works. Whether she was too old to be in touch with modern developments, or whether she was simply too ambitious for the times (just try to describe molecular behavior without using the words Electron, Proton, Nucleus, Polarity, or Bond, and you’ll get a notion of the difficulties involved), she wasn’t happy with it and it never caught the public imagination in the same way as her first three works.
As an original researcher, her work on the relationship between light and magnetism was accurate, with a nose for what the Next Big Thing was going to be, though ultimately her conclusions were shown to be flawed. As an epicenter of British, indeed European, scientific life, she reigned confidently for four decades. Faraday and Young, Laplace and Herschel, all respected her achievements and counted her a warm and ceaselessly modest friend. She was honored by the Royal Geographic Society at home, and the Italian Geographic Society abroad, given a pension from the British government for her contribution to English intellectual life, and a statue of her was commissioned by the British Royal Society. After four decades of constant struggle and intellectual deprivation, and five more of domestic happiness, international acclaim, and blissful pursuit of the eternal truths of mathematics, Mary Somerville died in 1872.
Lead image: 1834 painting of Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips, public domain
Further Reading: In her nineties, Mary Somerville wrote her memoirs, which are a mixture of charming anecdotes and seemingly endless social gatherings of people only the most dedicated of early nineteenth century European enthusiasts will have heard about. The additional notes added by her daughter also add a nice feeling for what Mary was like on a day-to-day basis which is equally lovely. For those who, after reading the first Women in Science comic about Emilie du Châtelet rushed out to buy Robyn Arianrhod’s still terribly titled but thoroughly wonderful Seduced by Logic have already discovered that the whole second half of the book is devoted to Mary Somerville’s life and work – two great mathematicians for the price of one – YOU CAN’T LOSE!!