The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)


Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience 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.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science

16 responses to “The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

  1. Alleyne Dickens

    Reblogged this on Alleyne Dickens, Author and commented:
    On Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate all the woman who’s contribution to science made history — even if HIStory chose to ignore them.

  2. M Tucker

    Thony, this is just a wonderful argument for the importance of translators in furthering scientific understanding. I have been interested in the work of Jane Marcet and the books that she wrote. I came across her in conjunction with Faraday and was impressed with how influential her books had been over such a long time. It was while trying to find out more about her that I discovered that she and her father knew Mary Somerville. I thought at the time how remarkable for women, living when they did, to have been so successful in bringing the study of science to a wider audience and especially for Jane’s focus on educating young women. She has been called a popularizer and I grew up at a time when popularizers were looked down on. It is so easy to overlook the influence of translators and popularizers and how wide their influence has been.

    • Translators, popularisers, educators, instrument makers, scientific publishers and textbook authors all play a highly significant role in the evolution of science, a fact that tends to get ignore by almost all people when discussing the history of science. Specialists historians discuss theses people and their contributions but there is rarely an integration with mainstream history of science. Mainstream history of science is only part of the pictures.

      Did you see my friend Dr SkySkull’s Ada Lovelace Day blog post on Jane Marcet and Michael Faraday?

      • M Tucker

        Thony, thank you so much for that link. That was a delightful and very informative article. I was impressed by the quotes that verified what I had always thought the relationship between Faraday and Marcet had been. I had supposed that she communicated with Faraday to update new editions of her books. To my way of thinking Marcet is one of the giants in the history of science. I think all professional and amateur scientists today could trace their introduction to the sciences to people like Marcet.

        It was through books aimed at the non-expert that informed my interest in chemistry and astronomy and helped me establish my rock and mineral collection when I was a youngster. I find it very unusual today that so many young people seem bored by the sciences. My neighborhood friends were interested in science and I could not wait to take my first official science classes at school. My favorite author became Isaac Asimov for both the science books and the science fiction. From what I have learned about Jane Marcet I would judge her influence to be of a higher order.

  3. Michal Meyer

    Thank you for broadening people’s understandings of the ways in which scientific contributions can be made. Such people rarely get the credit they deserve. I think women at the time were helped by the fact that science had not yet become a profession and, as such, closed to them. Somerville also wrote an article on comets for the Quarterly Review in, I think, 1835. One minor note: as far as I’m aware, Somerville’s Mechanism of the Heavens only went through one edition.

    • There are at least two editions as there was a pirated American edition with a slightly modified title. Given that the initial edition was only 750 copies and Patterson claims that the book was used as a school textbook for more than 100 years I think that there must have been more than one edition. It might well be the case that subsequent editions were only reprints of the first edition but I think that they must have existed.

  4. You can get a paperback reissue of that edition from the Cambridge Library Collection:, as well as Mrs Somerville’s autobiography, edited by her daughter: (We also do Marcet and Faraday!)

  5. Reblogged this on Culture, Travel, Food, Music – Vancouver and Beyond and commented:
    A belated nod to Ada Lovelace Day, but I am glad to reblog this excellent post by Renaissance Mathematicus.

  6. EnonZ

    So many of us are handed education freely, like an ice cream cone, and we fail to eat it enthusiastically, taking it for granted. Then there are those who have to struggle mightily to become educated. This story of Mary Somerville reminds me of Frederick Douglass’ struggle to become a literate and educated man once he had been introduced to the alphabet by the soft-hearted wife of a slaveowner. One of most riveting stories you have told on this blog.

  7. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #18 | Whewell's Ghost

  8. A very good blog Thony C, on how helpful good science translation can be.
    But the failings of some science translation should also be noted, as in the failure to translate William Gilbert from Latin till hundreds of years after his death and then putting his science badly wrong.
    Eg. see my

  9. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 26/12/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  10. Pingback: Visions of Science: Mary Somerville | jamescungureanu

  11. Reaching this a year late, but with great admiration. I often want to weep over my own little lost copy of Jane Marcet’s wonderful Conversations in Chemistry, so invaluable to Faraday. I agree that Mary Somerville deserves a day of her own in which to be honoured for all she did to popularise science, making really almost impossible texts accessible. Perhaps one day, you will write also about Madame Lavoisier, another giant of those times

  12. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #09 | Whewell's Ghost

  13. An eye opener for me. My daughter got me Newton’s Principia for Christmas. Reading it, I was thinking that Newton wrote in surprisingly modern English. But after reading this article I looked at the front and saw “Translated into English by Andrew Motte”.

    It’s pleasing to read of Mary Somerville enjoying this triumph in spite of the hand she was dealt.

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