mary somerville

Women in Astronomy

In this short series on ‘Women in Astronomy’ I wanted to highlight the significant contribution that women have made to our understanding of the cosmos. These contributions were achieved despite the attitudes and prejudices towards women, prevailing at the time.

mary somerville

Part I: Mary Somerville (Dec 1780 -Nov 1872)

Mary Somerville was a prolific writer, polymath and astronomer. If you live in Scotland or have attended Oxford University you are more likely to have heard her name: since 2017 her face has appeared on the Scottish £10 note and Somerville College, Oxford is named after her.

When she died at the age of 91 in 1872 a newspaper wrote: “Whatever difficulty we might have in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.”

She was born Mary Fairfax into a well-to-do family in Scotland, although it was her relatives that really had the money. Her father was in the Navy and eventually became a Vice Admiral. He decided she should learn to write and keep accounts, so she was sent to a good private school.

Later an aunt visited the household and declared that Mary was wasting too much time reading. As a consequence she was sent to the village school to learn needlework. Mary was distressed that her reading was disapproved of and thought it unjust that women should not be given the desire to learn.

Eventually, aged 13, she attended a writing school in Edinburgh where she made great strides in her writing and arithmetic. Later she studied music, Greek, algebra and in particular, geometry.

At 24 she married, moved to London and had two children. It was not a happy time: her hunger for study was curtailed. Her husband thought poorly of women studying or learning. It was written that Greig (her husband), “possessed in full the prejudice against learned women which was common at the time.”

Greig died in 1807 and she returned to Scotland and resumed her studies, particularly in mathematics. She went on to develop and have published a number of important mathematical solutions.

She remarried and returned to London, had four more children. The couple moved in intellectual and scientific society.

She went on to study and publish scientific papers and translate volumes of scientific papers from French to English. She wrote many books – with the primary aim of making money as the couple had financial troubles. Her second book, ‘On Connexion of the Physical Sciences’ sold over 15,000 copies and established her reputation as an eminent scientist.

She loved astronomy – and said “In astronomy we perceive the operation of a force which is mixed up with everything that exists in the heavens or on earth; which pervades every atom, rules the motions of animate and inanimate beings, and is as sensible in the descent of a rain-drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon.”

She was part of a group of scientist who identified anomalies in the motion of the planet Uranus. From the data they predicted the existence of another planet – one which they couldn’t see or detect at the time. The results were published in one of her many editions of ‘Connexion’.

In 1846 the planet Neptune was discovered: its hypothetical existence predicted by Somerville and others.

‘Connexion’ had ten editions and was the most successful science book until Darwin’s, ‘The Origin of Species’.

Later she and her husband lived in Italy where she continued to write and develop theories.

Shortly before her death in 1868 she was the first signatory on John Mill’s (unsuccessful) petition for female suffrage. Later she wrote that “British laws are adverse to women.”

Over 10,000 pieces of her writing are stored as part of the ‘Somerville Collection’ in the Oxford Bodleian Library.

So next time you pick up a Scottish £10 note or look through a telescope at Neptune, spare a thought for this remarkable woman in astronomy and science.

Look out for the next article – Williamina Fleming -another Scottish astronomer.

If you enjoy the heavens then do visit where you can see some of the wondrous objects from deep space – imaged by me, Chris Baker.