Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The First Scientist, Who Is Truly 'On The Money'

I am perversely excited about the announcement regarding the new Scottish £10 notes. A public ballot was held a few weeks back, inviting votes for which Scottish person should be portrayed, from a given shortlist. There was a clear leader all through the week - then suspiciously, at the very last moment, a load of votes for one person arrived from outside the UK. The Scottish Banks wisely decided to ignore these, and announced the winner to be Mary Somerville, scientist [1780-1872]. Which is brilliant for many reasons [I voted for her]

When I was at Primary School, I was given a "Girl's Annual" one Christmas. Back then, these usually had a few stories, an article about washing your hair carefully, a couple of craft projects, and mini biographies of two or three 'worthy women' who would be good role models. This particular book had a feature about Mary Fairfax Somerville. From the first paragraph, I was fascinated by her. You can read details of her life here.
From an early age, she fell in love with mathematics, spending hours wrestling with algebra problems. Her father wondered if she were a lunatic and should be confined to an asylum. She was skilled at French, loved science, and became an accomplished astronomer. She was a true polymath. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1834 - before Victoria ascended to the throne, after the publication of Mary's second book, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, William Whewell, suggested that the term 'men of science' was now obsolete, and instead the term 'scientist' should be used, recognising both women and men had valued contributions to make. So Mary was truly the first person to be called a scientist
I do not think Mary is as well known as she should be. Somerville College, Oxford is named after her, being founded within a decade of her death. She was highly respected by so many in her lifetime - not just scientists - she was a great friend of the artist JMWTurner. I really must watch that film sometime- Mary is portrayed in it - here she is demonstrating the properties of violet light

Sir David Brewster, the inventor of the kaleidoscope [yes, really] said of her
... certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe - a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman ... She is also a great natural philosopher and mineralogist. 

I end with two quotes from Mary herself - one rather wordy one about her faith -
Nothing has afforded me so convincing a proof of the unity of the Deity as these purely mental conceptions of numerical and mathematical science which have been by slow degrees vouchsafed to man, and are still granted in these latter times by the Differential Calculus, now superseded by the Higher Algebra, all of which must have existed in that sublimely omniscient Mind from eternity.

And a second quote that I really identified with as a schoolgirl - and still do even now

Sometimes I find [mathematical problems] difficult, but my old obstinacy remains, for if I do not succeed today, I attack them again on the morrow.


  1. A truly worthy person for the bank note. Just out if interest, who were all the last minute votes for?x

  2. Thomas Telford. Another worthy candidate, but not quite as deserving [imho]!!

  3. But why from outside UK? Does he have family emigrated?!

    1. I am not sure if anybody knows who the votes came from, just tat they were deemed 'suspicious'

  4. Very interesting. I spent 35 years as a science teacher/head of science promoting the place of women in science and engineering, trying to be a role model. Love the last quotation!


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