Mary Somerville: Unraveling the Universe


Mary Somerville is a female astronomer and mathematician who played a vital role in the discovery of the planet Neptune, at a time when women’s participation in science was discouraged.

As a child, she had minimal education. She was taught to read by her mother and attended a boarding school for girls for one year at the age of ten. Upon her return home, she began to educate herself from the family library. After the passing away of her first husband in 1807, she was able to dedicate herself to her mathematical studies. She remarried in 1812; her second husband took pride in his wife’s educational accomplishments. She began to study botany and geology; in 1816, she moved to London where she met eminent scientists, such as the astronomer Sir William Herschel and French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace.

In 1831, she published The Mechanism of the Heavens, in which she summarized the current state of astronomical knowledge for the general reader. In the introduction, she mentioned that all the knowledge we possess of external objects is founded upon experience, and the comparison of these facts establishes relations, from which induction leads us to general laws. Thus, experience shows that bodies fall towards the surface of Earth with an accelerated velocity proportional to their masses; through such steps Newton discovered one of these powers.

Physical astronomy is the science that compares and identifies the laws of motion observed on Earth, tracing an uninterrupted chain of deduction from the great principle that governs the universe, the rotations of planets, and the oscillations of the fluids at their surfaces, which estimates the changes the system has undergone or may experience, changes that require millions of years for their accomplishment.

Somerville’s next book, The Connection of the Physical Sciences, was even more ambitious in summarizing astronomy, physics, geography, and meteorology; she wrote nine subsequent editions over the rest of her life to update it. In the third edition, published in 1836, she wrote that difficulties in calculating the position of Uranus may point to the existence of an undiscovered planet. This hint inspired British astronomer John Adams to begin the calculations that ultimately led to the discovery of Neptune.

The Somerville family went to Italy in 1838 because of her husband’s ill health, and she spent the rest of her life there. In honor of Mary Somerville, she will become the first woman besides the Queen to appear on a Scottish banknote. Mary Somerville of Scotland will appear on £10 banknotes to be issued in 2017, the Independent reports, after winning a poll organized by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). The RBS invited Facebook users to “like” the image of the historical figure they most wanted to see on their currency.


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