Mary Somerville: The Mechanism of the Heavens


This extract is a chapter from our second women in STEM anthology, More Passion For Science: Journeys into the Unknownavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

Karen Masters

“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 an 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.”

– Obituary of Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1873.

Mary Somerville, like most girls in the late 18th century, did not have much access to formal education and, as a ‘gentlewoman’, was instead encouraged to become accomplished in sewing, music and painting. Despite this, her contributions to the advancement of mathematics and science, under the confines of suitable ‘ladylike’ behaviour are exceptional.

Somerville wrote the first English translation of the methods of calculus developed by Laplace in his Mechanique Celeste, not as a straight translation from French, but including rederivations ,which are often credited as laying out some of the techniques and proofs more clearly. Her Mechanism of the Heavens was first published in 1831, and introduced hundreds of English speaking scholars of maths and science to calculus. Somerville also became a great populariser of mathematics and science, and through her writings provided what, at the time, were new overviews and connections between scientific topics. In her 1835 book, The Connexion of the Physical Sciences, she invented the concept of physics as a single subject, and the term ‘scientist’ was coined in a review of the text. Somerville was throughout this a committed campaigner for the advancement of the education of women, and must herself have wondered what might have been had she been educated like her brothers.

In reality, Somerville was almost completely uneducated until the age of eight, and came from a family who, for the most part, actively disapproved of her desire to learn. She discovered her interest in maths when looking at a puzzle in a women’s fashion magazine and had to ask the tutor of a younger sibling to procure suitable textbooks for a study in basic mathematics, which she then had to read secretly late at night. She did not begin a serious study of advanced mathematics until she was an independent widow, and past 30.

A Christmas arrival

“I was born in the house of my future husband, and nursed by his mother – a rather singular coincidence.”

– Mary Somerville, Recollections.

Mary Fairfax was born on 26th December 1780. Her father, Sir William Fairfax, had very recently been assigned as a Lieutenant on board a frigate destined for the Americas, and was expected to be away for some time (the American War of Independence was in full swing, running as it did from 1775-1783), so her mother, Margaret, spent Christmas, and the end of her pregnancy, at the house of her sister, Martha Somerville. (Mary’s maternal aunt was married to Rev Dr Thomas Somerville; their eldest son, William, would be Mary’s second husband).

It is easy to imagine the scenes of joy surrounding a baby born during the Christmas season, but sadly delight turned to concern as Margaret fell dangerously ill following the birth. Mary was baptised the day she was born. This may have been because her uncle, a minister, was simply there in the house, but it could hint at concern for the baby’s survival after a difficult birth. Fortunately, Martha was still nursing her daughter, Janet, and so was able to also nurse Mary until a wet nurse could be found. In due course, Margaret recovered.

A lonely child collecting seashells

“I never cared for dolls and had no-one to play with me. I amused myself in the garden which was much frequented by birds.”

– Mary Somerville, Recollections.

Mary spent her childhood in Burntisland, a small seaport town on the coast of Fife in Scotland, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. The garden of her childhood home ended at the sea, and Mary wandered freely, collecting flowers, seashells, and unusual rocks containing fossilised ferns. She was the fifth of seven children but, as was not uncommon at the time, three died very young and her surviving siblings were rather separated in age. She was closest to her elder brother Sam, who was four years her senior, but he frequently lodged in Edinburgh to attend school, while she remained at home. Her only surviving sister, Margaret, was seven years her junior, and her brother Henry was 10 years younger.

Mary’s mother taught her to read from the Bible, and insisted on prayers morning and evening, but otherwise her early education was entirely neglected. When Lieutenant Fairfax returned home in 1789, he was shocked to find an eight year old daughter who ran almost wild, who could not write, and read only badly.

Mary first went to school in 1791 at age 10. She remained at school for only a year, and it’s an understatement to say it wasn’t a success. She appears to have hated the strict discipline, spending much of the time in tears. She returned home, her education only slightly improved, to run into the countryside like a “wild animal escaped out of a cage”.

Only when the weather was poor did Mary stay indoors, but she discovered a volume of the works of Shakespeare to keep her amused and it inspired her to read as much as possible. Sadly this new desire to learn was soon thwarted by the arrival of her maiden aunt Janet, who disapproved of women reading and packed Mary off to the village school to learn to sew. Mary grumbles in her Recollections, “I was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Thus began Mary’s thirst for knowledge, and the self-discipline and determination for quiet study that she maintained throughout her life. She describes in her Recollections how, at almost 90, she was still studying for several hours a day. This passion for learning enabled her to become one of the finest minds in 19th Century British mathematics and science. We can only imagine the heights that she could have achieved had her early education been less of a battle against expectations and conventions.

Algebra in a women’s fashion magazine

“I was surprised to see strange looking lines mixed with letters, chiefly x’s and y’s and asked: ‘What is that?’ ‘Oh’, said Miss Olgive, ‘it is a kind of arithmetic: they call it Algebra; but I can tell you nothing about it.’”

– Mary Somerville, Recollections.

It seems extraordinary in the modern world of celebrity fashion that Mary would first stumble across her “favourite pursuit” by finding algebra problems in a women’s monthly fashion magazine! The discussion at a tea party with her friend Miss Olgive inspired her to later look through books at home to work out what was meant by ‘algebra’.

Mary began a study of Robertson’s Navigation, a mathematical book easily available in the house of a Naval officer. She was unable to discover much in it about algebra, but it inspired in her an interest in astronomy as a mathematical subject – for example, predicting the future locations for planets – involving much more than just stargazing. She persevered alone in these studies for some time.

Here Mary might have been stuck, were it not the fashion for young ladies to learn to paint. At a class on perspective, her teacher recommended a study of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry as “the foundation not only of perspective, but of astronomy and all mechanical science”. But how was she to obtain a book by Euclid? She would certainly not be encouraged to read such texts, even if by this time she had been educated in more suitable ladylike subjects. The solution came in the form of her youngest brother’s tutor. He himself was no expert mathematician, but obtained for Mary the standard texts of the day, including Euclid.

Soon Mary was again to be in trouble for her wish to learn. She stayed up so late reading Euclid that she used up the family stock of candles too quickly, and the servants were ordered not to allow her candles at night. But Mary had memorised enough of the book by then to run through problems in her head every night, and her studies continued alone in the dark. Still, her father was not impressed when he found out, saying of her mathematical studies, “we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.”

You can read this rest of this chapter in More Passion For Science: Journeys into the Unknownavailable as an ebook for £1.99 from Amazon.

About the author

Karen Masters is an Astronomer working at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, and the Project Scientist for the Galaxy Zoo Citizen Science Project. She has published more than 50 scientific articles on astronomical topics, including many based on the classifications contributed to Galaxy Zoo. She has a passion for science (especially astronomy) outreach and public engagement, and for the promotion of equality and diversity in STEM.

After attending local state schools in North Warwickshire and with a talent for mathematics and physics, Karen read physics at Oxford University, graduating with the best 1st in the BA class of 2000. She went on to study for a MSc and PhD in Astronomy at Cornell University in the USA. After obtaining her PhD in 2005, she worked for three years as a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (living for a time in Somerville, MA), before returning to her native UK as a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, where she is now a Reader in Astronomy and Astrophysics. She is married to a fellow astronomer and together they have two young children.

Karen frequently contributes to the Galaxy Zoo blog and the SDSS science blog.

Twitter: @KarenLMasters