This essay is adapted from my book Figuring
A middle-aged Scottish mathematician rises ahead of the sun to spend a couple of hours with Newton before the day punctuates her thinking with the constant interruptions of mothering four children and managing a bustling household. “A man can always command his time under the plea of business,” Mary Somerville (December 26, 1780–November 28, 1872) would later write in her memoir; “a woman is not allowed any such excuse.”
Growing up, Somerville had spent the daylight hours painting and playing piano. When her parents realized that the household candle supply had thinned because Mary had been staying up at night to read Euclid, they promptly confiscated her candles. “Peg,” she recalled her father telling her mother, “we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days.” Mary was undeterred. Having already committed the first six books of Euclid to memory, she spent her nights adventuring in mathematics in the bright private chamber of her mind.
Despite her precocity and her early determination, it took Somerville half a lifetime to come abloom as a scientist — the spring and summer of her life passed with her genius laying restive beneath the frost of the era’s receptivity to the female mind. When Somerville was forty-six, she published her first scientific paper — a study of the magnetic properties of violet rays — which earned her praise from the inventor of the kaleidoscope, Sir David Brewster, as “the most extraordinary woman in Europe — a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Lord Brougham, the influential founder of the newly established Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge — with which Thoreau would take issue thirty-some years later by making a case for “the diffusion of useful ignorance,” comprising “knowledge useful in a higher sense” — was so impressed that he asked Somerville to translate a mathematical treatise by Pierre-Simon Laplace, “the Newton of France.” She took the project on, perhaps not fully aware how many years it would take to complete to her satisfaction, which would forever raise the common standard of excellence. All great works suffer from and are saved by a gladsome blindness to what they ultimately demand of their creators.
As the months unspooled into years, Somerville supported herself as a mathematics tutor to the children of the wealthy. One of her students was a little girl named Ada, daughter of the mathematically inclined baroness Annabella Milbanke and the only legitimate child of the sybarite poet Lord Byron — a little girl would would grow to be, thanks to Somerville’s introduction to Charles Babbage, the world’s first computer programmer.
When Somerville completed the project, she delivered something evocative of the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s wonderful notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original” In The Mechanism of the Heavens, published in 1831 after years of work, Somerville hadn’t merely translated the math, but had expanded upon it and made it comprehensible to lay readers, popularizing Laplace’s esoteric ideas.
The book was an instant success, drawing attention from the titans of European science. John Herschel, whom Somerville considered the greatest scientist of their time and who was soon to coin the word photography, wrote her a warm letter she treasured for the rest of her days:
Dear Mrs. Somerville,
I have read your manuscript with the greatest pleasure, and will not hesitate to add, (because I am sure you will believe it sincere,) with the highest admiration. Go on thus, and you will leave a memorial of no common kind to posterity; and, what you will value far more than fame, you will have accomplished a most useful work. What a pity that La Place has not lived to see this illustration of his great work! You will only, I fear, give too strong a stimulus to the study of abstract science by this performance.
Somerville received another radiant fan letter from the famed novelist Maria Edgeworth, who wrote after devouring The Mechanism of the Heavens:
I was long in the state of the boa constrictor after a full meal — and I am but just recovering the powers of motion. My mind was so distended by the magnitude, the immensity, of what you put into it!… I can only assure you that you have given me a great deal of pleasure; that you have enlarged my conception of the sublimity of the universe, beyond any ideas I had ever before been enabled to form.
Edgeworth was particularly taken with a “a beautiful sentence, as well as a sublime idea” from Somerville’s section on the propagation of sound waves:
At a very small height above the surface of the earth, the noise of the tempest ceases and the thunder is heard no more in those boundless regions, where the heavenly bodies accomplish their periods in eternal and sublime silence.
Years later, Edgeworth would write admiringly of Somerville that “while her head is up among the stars, her feet are firm upon the earth.”
In 1834, Somerville published her next major treatise, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences — an elegant and erudite weaving together of the previously fragmented fields of astronomy, mathematics, physics, geology, and chemistry. It quickly became one of the scientific best sellers of the century and earned Somerville pathbreaking admission into the Royal Astronomical Society the following year, alongside the astronomer Caroline Herschel — the first women admitted as members of the venerable institution.
When Maria Mitchell — America’s first professional female astronomer and the first woman employed by the U.S. government for a professional task — traveled to Europe to meet the Old World’s greatest scientific luminaries, her Quaker shyness could barely contain the thrill of meeting her great hero. She spent three afternoons with Somerville in Scotland and left feeling that “no one can make the acquaintance of this remarkable woman without increased admiration for her.” In her journal, Mitchell described Somerville as “small, very,” with bright blue eyes and strong features, looking twenty years younger than her seventy-seven years, her diminished hearing the only giveaway of her age. “Mrs. Somerville talks with all the readiness and clearness of a man, but with no other masculine characteristic,” Mitchell wrote. “She is very gentle and womanly… chatty and sociable, without the least pretence, or the least coldness.”
Months after the publication of Somerville’s Connexion, the English polymath William Whewell — then master of Trinity College, where Newton had once been a fellow, and previously pivotal in making Somerville’s Laplace book a requirement of the university’s higher mathematics curriculum — wrote a laudatory review of her work, in which he coined the word scientist to refer to her. The commonly used term up to that point — “man of science” — clearly couldn’t apply to a woman, nor to what Whewell considered “the peculiar illumination” of the female mind: the ability to synthesize ideas and connect seemingly disparate disciplines into a clear lens on reality. Because he couldn’t call her a physicist, a geologist, or a chemist — she had written with deep knowledge of all these disciplines and more — Whewell unified them all into scientist. Some scholars have suggested that he coined the term a year earlier in his correspondence with Coleridge, but no clear evidence survives. What does survive is his incontrovertible regard for Somerville, which remains printed in plain sight — in his review, he praises her as a “person of true science.”
Whewell saw the full dimension of Somerville’s singular genius as a connector and cross-pollinator of ideas across disciplines. “Everything is naturally related and interconnected,” Ada Lovelace would write a decade later. Maria Mitchell celebrated Somerville’s book as a masterwork containing “vast collections of facts in all branches of Physical Science, connected together by the delicate web of Mrs. Somerville’s own thought, showing an amount and variety of learning to be compared only to that of Humboldt.” But not everyone could see the genius of Somerville’s contribution to science in her synthesis and cross-pollination of information, effecting integrated wisdom greater than the sum total of bits of fact — a skill that becomes exponentially more valuable as the existing pool of knowledge swells. One obtuse malediction came from the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who proclaimed that Somerville had never done anything original — a remark that the young sculptor Harriet Hosmer, herself a pioneer who paved the way for women in art, would tear to shreds. In a letter defending Somerville, she scoffed:
To the Carlyle mind, wherein women never played any conspicuous part, perhaps not, but no one, man or woman, ever possessed a clearer insight into complicated problems, or possessed a greater gift of rendering such problems clear to the mind of the student, one phase of originality, surely.
Somerville’s uncommon gift for seeing clearly into complexity came coupled with a deep distaste for dogma and the divisiveness of religion, the supreme blinders of lucidity. She recounted that as religious controversies swirled about her, she had “too high a regard for liberty of conscience to interfere with any one’s opinions.” She chose instead to live “on terms of sincere friendship and love with people who differed essentially” in their religious views. In her memoir, she encapsulated her philosophy of creed: “In all the books which I have written I have confined myself strictly and entirely to scientific subjects, although my religious opinions are very decided.”
Above all, Somerville possessed the defining mark of the great scientist and the great human being — the ability to hold one’s opinions with firm but unfisted fingers, remaining receptive to novel theories and willing to change one’s mind in light of new evidence. Her daughter recounted:
It is not uncommon to see persons who hold in youth opinions in advance of the age in which they live, but who at a certain period seem to crystallise, and lose the faculty of comprehending and accepting new ideas and theories; thus remaining at last as far behind, as they were once in advance of public opinion. Not so my mother, who was ever ready to hail joyfully any new idea or theory, and to give it honest attention, even if it were at variance with her former convictions. This quality she never lost, and it enabled her to sympathise with the younger generation of philosophers, as she had done with their predecessors, her own contemporaries.
Shortly after the publication of Somerville’s epoch-making book, the education reformer Elizabeth Peabody — who lived nearly a century, introduced Buddhist texts to America, and coined the term Transcendentalism — echoed the sentiment in her penetrating insight into middle age and the art of self-renewal.