Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Boxing Day marked the 236th anniversary of the birth of Mary Somerville, Scottish scientist and polymath. And it so happened that on the day before that, Christmas Day, pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who established the existence of dark matter, passed away without ever winning the Nobel Prize that she probably deserved. I may be a few days late, but it still seems the week to celebrate Somerville’s legacy.
As Maria Popova noted over at Brainpickings, the very word “scientist” was coined for Somerville’s sake, because the traditional phrase “man of science” was obviously inappropriate for a woman. Another phrase by which Somerville was known was “the queen of science.” When she passed away in 1872, the London Post described her as “the Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science.”
Mary Fairfax was born into a prominent Scottish family in 1780. As a child she received little formal education and was only allowed to attend her brother’s mathematics lessons informally. And after her sister died, she had to continue her studies in secret as her parents believed that the studies contributed to her sister’s death. She married a distant Russian cousin named Samuel Grieg, who opposed women pursuing science at all. After he died, she married another cousin, Dr. Thomas Somerville, who encouraged her in her work.
Later, the French physicist and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace would quip to her that there had “been only three women who have understood me. These are yourself Mrs Somerville, Caroline Herschel [the astronomer and sister and collaborator of fellow astronomer William Herschel] and a Mrs Greig of whom I know nothing.” Somerville and Herschel would become the first women elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville translated Laplace’s book Mécanique Céleste into English, causing Laplace to say that she was the only woman who could not only understand but also correct his work.
But there was and another reason that Cambridge professor William Whewell coined the word “scientist” in 1834 for Somerville’s sake: She was what today we would call an “interdisciplinary” thinker. Instead of studying only physics or only chemistry or only astronomy, she had the peculiar ability to synthesize seemingly disparate areas of scientific knowledge.
In 1827, the other great scientific synthesizer of the age, Alexander von Humboldt of Prussia, visited her when he traveled through London. Humboldt, known as “the most famous man in the world after Napoleon,” invented many our modern notions about ecology and the environment, including the view of nature as an interconnected whole, even an organism. But perhaps even in that characterization of Humboldt we are being unfair to Somerville, who took much the same holistic approach to nature as Humboldt in her book Physical Geography, published in 1848, which remained in use as a textbook until the 20th century. I can only imagine what it might have been like to eavesdrop on their dinner conversation in 1827 London.
Both Somerville and Humboldt are largely forgotten today. Perhaps the role of the synthesizer, rather than the discoverer of some marvelous theorem or elegant equation, doomed them to this fate. But Somerville remains a striking illustration of what a brilliant mind, of whatever gender, can do, even if she had to struggle against obstacles the whole way. Vera Rubin was another.
For more on Somerville and Rubin, head over to Brainpickings, and read Rubin’s obituary in the New York Times. For more on Humboldt, read Andrea Wulf’s excellent and award-winning biography of him, The Invention of Nature.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."