Mary Somerville: Polymath and pioneer

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.  CC BY 4.0

Guest post by the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Continuing with their series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics, Allan Chapman looks at the life and work of Mary Somerville, one of the first honorary members of the Royal Astronomical society.

Mary Somerville’s scientific interests were many and varied – and her success in pursuing them over a long life especially notable for a woman in the nineteenth century. She was fascinated by electromagnetism, wrote treatises on astronomy and geophysics, studied the physics of photography and the chemistry of plants, and produced articles and books aimed at both the scientific and more popular audience. Underpinning everything was her deep understanding of and profound belief in the mathematical foundations of the universe, something that had first been sparked by an encounter with an algebraic puzzle in a fashion magazine.

Mary’s upbringing was unconventional. The daughter of a naval captain who was absent for most of her childhood, she was not sent away to school, but allowed to run wild at home and learn as she wished; her father, upon his return, described her as a little ‘savage’.  Mary was later schooled in the accomplishments expected of a woman of her time, but continued to teach herself mathematics, aided by her brother and her father’s books on navigation. Worried about the effects of scientific learning on her sanity (and social standing), her parents limited her access to books, and Mary’s first husband, Captain Samuel Grieg, openly disapproved of her scientific interests. None of this dissuaded Mary, and when Grieg died, leaving her a widow of independent means, she began her scientific studies in earnest.

Mary’s second marriage, to Dr William Somerville, opened up a world of opportunity for her. Somerville, himself a renowned and well-travelled doctor, was proud of Mary’s work, and did everything he could to aid her scientific pursuits. With his support she immersed herself in the scientific community, gaining fame via her conversations and letters, before publishing her first scientific paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1826. She went on to write four significant and respected scientific books, was one of the first two female Honorary Members of the Royal Astronomical Society, alongside Caroline Herschel; in 1879 Somerville College, Oxford was named in her honour.

You can read more about Mary Somerville on the Astronomy and Geophysics website, and there’s an excerpt from Dr Karen Masters’ chapter about her from the ALD book, More Passion for Science.

Chapman, A. (2016), “Mary Somerville: pioneering pragmatist”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(2) 2.10-2.12.

Explore Ada Lovelace’s Bernoulli program with Wolfram

Ada LovelaceIn 1843, Ada Lovelace became the first person to publish what we would now call a computer program, a set of instructions to calculate Bernoulli’s Numbers, written for Charles Babbage’s unbuilt Analytical Engine. Lovelace had translated a paper about the Analytical Engine written in French by Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea, and had at Babbage’s suggestion added her own notes explaining the potential of the Analytical Engine in depth.

You can now explore the Bernoulli program using the Wolfram Language, a symbolic language which “emphasizes symbolic computation, functional programming, and rule-based programming”.

The interactive notebook begins with the Gauss Schoolboy Problem:

As a young schoolboy, [German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss] was tasked with adding the first 100 integers, i.e. what is 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … + 98 + 99 + 100? (The answer is 5,050.) Gauss reportedly produced the correct answer within seconds. How did he do this?

The workbook demonstrates how to calculate these numbers, and thus then how to calculate Bernoulli Numbers, “a sequence of rational numbers with deep connections to number theory.” From the workbook:

Back in the 1600s, people spent their lives making tables of sums of powers of integers. But Jakob Bernoulli pointed out that all such sums can be expressed as polynomials, with the coefficients being related to what are now called Bernoulli numbers. And in 1713, Bernoulli was proud to say that he had computed the first 10 Bernoulli numbers ‘in a quarter of an hour’—reproducing years of other people’s work.

Ada Lovelace was calculating these numbers by hand!

You can also scans of Lovelace’s letter to Babbage discussing the Bernoulli numbers at the end of the workbook.

The workbookWolfram Language was created by Wolfram Research, makers of Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha.

Agnes Mary Clerke: Trailblazing science writer

Guest post by the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Photograph of Agnes Clerke

Agnes Clerke (Royal Astronomical Society)

In the latest of a series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics, Sara Russell asks how Agnes Mary Clerke, who never went to school or university, became a highly respected science writer whose achievements stand alongside those of Mary Somerville.  This blog post is a summary of Russell’s article which looks at the life and achievements of Agnes Clerke, one of the few women to be made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society at a time when they were barred from the Fellowship.

It is interesting that Agnes Clerke was compared to Mary Somerville. Like Somerville, Agnes was mainly educated at home, although her parents were more supportive of her interest in science than those of Mary Somerville. As an adult, Agnes Clerke had a degree of financial independence, in common with other women who were made honorary members. However, Agnes operated within limitations imposed by society as a whole and by the Royal Astronomical Society in particular.

It appears that Agnes was also critically aware of her own strengths and weaknesses; her loyalty to her family led her to turn down at least one prestigious offer of employment. Russell paints a picture of a woman who nevertheless made the most of opportunities available to her, by serving on the Council of the British Astronomical Association, and learning observational astronomy under the aegis of David Gill at the Cape of Good Hope.  

Agnes Clerke had such breadth and depth of knowledge that she could write authoritatively about the history of astronomy as well as the new discipline of astrophysics. The Royal Astronomical Society finally recognised her remarkable body of work in 1903, when she was made an honorary member at the same time as her friend, Lady Margaret Huggins. Sara Russell poignantly speculates on what work Clerke could have carried out if more professional opportunities had been open to her.

You can read more about Agnes Mary Clerke on the Astronomy and Geophysics website.

Russell, S. (2016), “Agnes Mary Clerke: stars, systems, problems”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(3) 3.16-3.17.

Welcome to our new sponsor: Mendeley

Mendeley logoWe are always happy when we get to announce new sponsors, but I’m particularly happy when those sponsors choose also to support schools by sponsoring our Ada Lovelace Day Live Scholarships, providing free tickets for school parties that wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. This year, Mendeley is providing the support for several school groups to attend our science cabaret at The IET on 11 October.

Mendeley is a productivity tool for researchers that combines a reference manager and academic social network. It helps you build and manage a fully searchable library, find new and relevant articles, monitor and showcase your publications, and annotate, share and cite documents. By providing a secure, fast and simple way to stay up to date on literature and share information with other researchers, Mendeley enables easy collaboration and greater productivity. It will also support the search for potential collaborators and new research positions.

You can follow Mendeley on Twitter: @mendeley_com

We depend on our sponsors to fund not just Ada Lovelace Day Live!, but all of our work including our resources database, free education pack for teachers, podcast, and free monthly newsletter. If you would like to join them and help us to expand our work, please take a look at our current sponsorship packages!

Ep 5: Roma Agrawal & Dr Peter Etchells

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Welcome to the Ada Lovelace Day podcast, highlighting the work of women in STEM. Each month, we talk to women from around the STEM world about their careers, as well as talking to women and men, about historic and modern women’s achievements, discoveries, and inventions.

In this episode

01:23: Structural engineer Roma Agrawal tells us about her work on the iconic Shard skyscraper in London, and the challenges of retrofitting Victorian buildings.

26:15: Biological psychologist Dr Pete Etchells talks about the work of Dr Suzanne Gage, who investigates the relationships between recreational drug use and mental health.

Ada Lovelace Day Live!

ALD Live is an entertaining evening of geekery, comedy and music suitable for everyone over the age of 12. If you’d like to enjoy a taster, take a look at our videos from 20152014 and 2013!

Our amazing ALD Live! speakers this year are:

  • Yewande Akinola, design engineer focused on sustainable water supply systems and the engineering design coordination of large projects in the built environment.
  • Dr Sheila Kanani, planetary physicist, science presenter, secondary school physics teacher and space comedienne with a background in astrophysics and astronomy.
  • Dr Kat Arney, science writer and broadcaster whose work has featured in the New Scientist, Wired, the Guardian, the Times Educational Supplement, BBC Radio 4, the Naked Scientists and more.
  • Jenny Duckett, developer with the Government Digital Service.
  • Dr Sara Santos, mathematician, director and founder of Maths Busking.
  • Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, computational biologist working on drug discovery for Cancer Research UK.
  • Dr Anna Jones, deputy science leader for the British Antarctic Survey’s Atmosphere, Ice and Climate Team.
  • Helen Keen, comedian and our fabulous compère.

Tickets are available now for £20/£5, so get yours now before they run out! Find out more about our speakers, venue, tickets and schedule.

Our interviewees

Roma Agrawal

Roma Agrawal

Roma Agrawal is a structural engineer was part of the team that built The Shard. She was awarded ‘Young Structural Engineer of the Year’ in 2011 by the Institution of Structural Engineers and was a finalist in the IET’s Young Woman Engineer award 2012. Roma works to raise awareness of engineering, correct the preconceptions about the field and inspire young people about STEM and engineering.

Read an excerpt from Roma’s More Passion for Science chapter on Brooklyn Bridge engineer Emily Warren Roebling, and watch Roma’s 2014 ALD Live! talk on bridges on YouTube or at the bottom of this post. And you can follow Roma on Twitter: @romatheengineer.

Dr Pete Etchells

Pete EtchellsDr Pete Etchells is a senior lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University, and the science blog network coordinator for the Guardian, where he also writes for the psychology blog Head Quarters. He researches the effects of playing video games on mental health and behaviour, and more generally the effects of technology use on the brain and behaviour. You can follow Pete on Twitter: @peteetchells.

Pete’s subject this month was Dr Suzanne Gage, an epidemiologist who use the Children of the 90s dataset to investigate relationships between recreational drug use and mental health. She has a blog called Sifting the Evidence, which won the 2012 Science Blog prize.

Read an except of Suzi’s Passion for Science chapter on Jean Golding OBE, or follow Suzi on Twitter: @soozaphone.

Thanks to our sponsor

This podcast is brought to you thanks to the generous support of ARM, our exclusive semiconductor industry sponsor. You can learn more about ARM on their website at and you can follow them on Twitter at @ARMHoldings.

If you would like to join ARM as a sponsor of the Ada Lovelace Day Podcast, please email us.

Get in touch!

If you’d like to send us feedback about the show, or if you’d like to take part, please email us. We’re especially interested in hear from men who would like to talk to us about the women in STEM who have influenced them, especially those women who are less well known.


Episode edited by Andrew Marks.

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