When people praise the flirty fancy footwork of Fred Astaire, it is important that they remember the old adage that Ginger Rogers did it all backwards and in high heels. I’m probably alone in thinking of Mary Somerville as the “Ginger Rogers” of 19th century science but it is beyond dispute that this mathematician, scientist, geographer and astronomer, a woman who also loved “parties, visits, balls, theatres, concerts and innocent flirtations” is now quick-stepping gracefully into the national spotlight.
For Mary Somerville, a daughter of Jedburgh, is currently on course to become the new face of the Scottish £10, beating competition from James Clerk Maxwell, the father of electromagnetism, and Thomas Telford, an engineer wittily described as the “Colossus of Roads”. All three 19th-century scientists are on the shortlist of names organised by RBS to recognise Scotland’s scientific achievements – despite the best efforts of some members of the public who voted for their inclusion, neither Sir Sean Connery nor Rab C Nesbitt are eligible. As I type, Mary Somerville is streaking ahead with almost 2,000 votes, almost twice as many as James Clerk Maxwell whose supporters this week sent out an anxious e-mail to rally support.
As David Forfar, chairman of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation explained in his e-mail to subscribers to the newsletter: “The competition between Mary Somerville (Scottish lady scientist) and Clerk Maxwell is intense. At the present time Somerville has twice as many votes as Clerk Maxwell so we are in for a real fight and Somerville will win unless the votes for Clerk Maxwell increase.”
The lobbying has the support of Professor David Ritchie, the foundation’s honorary president who believes the scientist’s achievements warrant greater public recognition. “Maxwell was such a modest man, he didn’t catch the eye, like Einstein or even Newton. It took a long time after his death before people realised how much he had changed the world. Everything we depend on nowadays in the electromagnetic sense... comes from him.”
That maybe so, but I’d still rather whip out a £10 note to see Mary Somerville smiling back up at me than James Clerk Maxwell and so would Anne Glover, the former chief scientific adviser to the Scottish Government, who is among those backing Somerville. As Glover explained: “She had many more obstacles in her way to achieve greatness than did Clerk Maxwell, yet she managed to prevail in a man’s world and did a huge amount for science. She could come to our service in the 21st century and help inspire a whole generation of young female scientists.”
Somerville’s story is indeed inspirational. The daughter of one of Nelson’s captains, she was born in 1780, at a time when education for women was considered superfluous. She had a single year at Miss Primrose’s Boarding School for Girls, which she hated, and emerged, in her own words “like a wild animal escaped out of a cage”. Yet if there was a single moment that eased her on to a path of intellectual discovery, it was while she attended a painting class where she overheard the tutor explain to another pupil that mathematics and specifically Euclid’s Elements, was the basis of not only artistic perspective but astronomy and science. Mary tracked down a copy and began to read so feverishly that her father was concerned “the strain of abstract thought would injure the tender female frame”.
Her first husband, Captain Samuel Greig, took a dim view of her scientific interests: “He had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of, nor interest in, science of any kind.” However, Greig died young, and her second husband, William Somerville, an inspector of hospitals, encouraged his wife’s research in every way.
While raising a family and, in 1814 grieving the deaths of two children in a single year, Somerville cultivated friendships and corresponded with the cream of the scientific establishment. In 1826, she published her first paper “The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum”. After a year in Paris, in 1834, she wrote “The Connections of the Physical Sciences” in which she discussed the possibility of an as yet undiscovered planet near Uranus. A suggestion that then prompted John Couch Adams to search for and later co-discover, the planet Neptune.
Somerville was engaging company. James David Forbes, who would go on to become the Principal of St Andrews University, wrote in his diary a description of an encounter with her: “Below middle size, fair, countenance not particularly expressive except eyes which are piercing. Short-sighted. Manners the simplest possible. Her conversation very simple and pleasing. Simplicity not showing itself in abstaining from scientific subjects with which she is so well acquainted, but in being ready to talk on them all with the naiveté of a child and the utmost apparent unconsciousness of the rarity of such knowledge as she possesses, so that it requires a moment’s reflection to be aware that one is hearing something very extraordinary from the mouth of a woman.”
I sincerely hope that Somerville triumphs and that in the years to come a new generation of young women will peer down at her face, become intrigued by her achievements and discover that she was also an early supporter of the female vote. When John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and economist, prepared a petition to parliament demanding a woman’s right to vote, he insisted that Mary Somerville be the first to sign. She was also indomitable and when she died in Naples in 1872 at the age of 91, she was still working on her latest paper and still dancing with mathematical problems. Her words are an inspiration to all: “My old obstinacy remains, for I do not succeed today, I attack them again on the morrow.”