Mary Somerville: Polymath and pioneer

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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.

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.

Margaret Huggins: Spectral specialist

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

Barbara Becker explores the vital research undertaken by Margaret Huggins in the field of spectroscopy, the latest in a series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics.

Photograph of Lady Margaret Huggins

Lady Margaret Huggins (Royal Astronomical Society)

Margaret Huggins’s renown is inextricably linked to that of her husband, the amateur astronomer, William Huggins (1824-1910). They married in September 1875, and collaborated at the Tulse Hill Observatory for the next thirty five years, focusing on spectroscopy and spectral photography. Margaret is most often presented as William’s subordinate assistant in a romanticised narrative of scientist and helpmeet that they themselves created. And yet the records that survive suggest Margaret may have been the driving force behind much of their work, and entered the marriage with considerable existing expertise in photographic observation. Much of William Huggins’s published work was based on their collaborative research and Margaret often produced the diagrams that appeared in these articles.

However, it wasn’t until 1889 that Margaret’s name appeared alongside her husband’s on a paper. Despite being awarded honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1903, she has rarely been recognised as a scientist in her own right. This is, in part, due to Margaret’s own efforts to establish a historical legacy for her husband, and her desire for her contributions not to overshadow his work and also to retain the image of a respectable Victorian woman. Historians are just beginning to fully uncover the significant role that Margaret Huggins played both in shaping her husband’s research and in directing and carrying it out herself.

You can read more on the Astronomy and Geophysics website. And to learn more about Margaret Huggins’ pioneering work on spectroscopy, watch Dr Jen Gupta’s talk from Ada Lovelace Day 2015 below.

Huggins, M. (2016), “Margaret Huggins and Tulse Hill Observatory”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(2) 2.13-2.14.

Caroline Herschel: First female astronomer

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

In 2016 the Royal Astronomical Society is marking 100 years since women were first elected as fellows of the Society by publishing a series of articles in Astronomy & Geophysics. In addition to focusing on the work of the handful of women who were admitted to Fellowship in 1916, the articles examine the contributions made by women before and after that date and the social and cultural framework to their lives. The RAS is delighted that the Ada Lovelace Day blog will be featuring summaries of these stories about women in STEM, starting with Michael Hoskin’s piece on Caroline Herschel.

Drawing and observations of a comet by Caroline Herschel, 1790

Caroline Herschel’s observation of a comet in 1790 (Royal Astronomical Society, RAS MSS Herschel C 1/1.2)

Caroline Herschel is remembered as the first professional female astronomer. While she is most often credited with assisting both her brother William and later her nephew John in their astronomical work, the contributions to astronomy that she made in her own right are both numerous and significant. She discovered comets and nebulae, compiled catalogues and produced an indexed and corrected edition of Flamsteed’s catalogue that was published by the Royal Society.

In 1785 she became the first woman in Britain to be paid for scientific work, when she received a salary from King George III to assist her brother William, Astronomer to His Majesty, in his work. She was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 1828 for her cataloguing work which they believed was ‘unparalleled in either magnitude or importance’ and became one of the first two female honorary members of the Society in 1835, alongside Mary Somerville. All of these achievements are staggering at a time when women were discouraged from any scientific pursuits, but are made even more so by Caroline’s inauspicious start in life.

Born in Hanover in 1750, Caroline’s mother contrived to keep her as an unpaid servant by denying her any training in the skills that might allow her to leave home and find employment. Rescued by William, she moved to live with him in Bath in 1772, initially performing alongside him as a musician catering for the aristocracy who visited the spa town. She left her homeland unmarried and uneducated, a tiny, working class woman scarred by smallpox and with no understanding of astronomy or even mathematics.

Find out more about Caroline Herschel on the Astronomy andGeophysics website.

Hoskin, M. (2016), “Gazing at the starry heavens”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(1) 1.22-1.25.