This long pursuit, p.18
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       This Long Pursuit, p.18

           Richard Holmes

  Individual chapters were given up to patient, step-by-step descriptions of certain key scientific concepts, and how they had evolved. For example: stellar parallax (Chapter 8); the formation of the earth’s atmosphere and climate (Chapter 15); the polarisation of light (Chapter 21); the effects of solar radiation (Chapter 24); Voltaic electricity (Chapter 28); the new science of electromagnetism (Chapter 34); the tracking and identification of comets (Chapter 35); or the sublime magnificence of shooting stars (Chapter 36).

  Chapter 16, on acoustics, was characteristically brilliant. It opened with the plain but memorable comparison: ‘The propagation of sound may be illustrated by a field of corn when it is agitated by the wind …’ It then went on to explain a vast range of acoustic phenomena, from birdsong and musical instruments to waterfalls and thunder. Finally Mary Somerville made another of her striking analogies, suggesting the ‘connexion’ between the various kinds of wave propagated in the different mediums of water, atmospheric air and solar light: ‘Anyone who has observed the reflection of the waves from a wall on the side of a river after the passage of a steam-boat, will have a perfect idea of the reflection of sound and of light.’

  Chapter 24, on the solar spectrum, contained one of the earliest descriptions of infra-red and ultra-violet rays, ‘undulations beyond the human optic nerve’, at the extreme ends of the known spectrum. Yet Somerville speculated that these might also have many possible functions in the animal kingdom: ‘We are altogether ignorant of the perceptions which direct the carrier pigeon to his home, or those in the antennae of insects which warn them of the approach of danger …’ Once again the sublime mystery of nature was emphasised.

  The most original sections, drawing successively on the work of Oersted, Ampère, Arago and Faraday, were those on electricity and electromagnetism, appearing towards the end of the book, in Chapters 32 to 34. Here Somerville wrote thrillingly of Faraday’s latest work with the ‘horse-shoe magnetic’ generator, and established the general principle that magnetism and electricity must have complex links, in what Faraday was beginning to define as ‘fields’. These sections would be particularly praised by Whewell and David Brewster, and they clearly predicted the decisive ‘connexion’ between all electromagnetic phenomena which would be mathematically established a generation later, by James Clerk Maxwell in his famous four equations.

  The Connexion appeared at a time when the scientific disciplines were beginning to define their separate territories, and to pull apart into the different specialisms we know today. Nothing could show this more clearly than the sudden explosion of separate scientific societies founded in Britain at this period. Beginning with the Geological Society in 1807, this was followed by the Astronomical in 1820, the Zoological in 1826, the Geographical in 1830, the Entomological in 1833, the Statistical in 1834, and the Meteorological in 1836. Thus the idea of establishing a vital and imaginative ‘connectivity’ between disciplines was timely but also challenging. All the more so, perhaps, because it was proposed by a woman, and addressed to a general reader.

  Yet the book’s reception proved enthusiastic, among both journalists and academics. On the one hand, the Athenaeum greeted it languidly as ‘a delightful volume … for the philosopher in his study and the literary lady in her boudoir’. On the other, David Brewster, a fierce scientific reviewer in the Edinburgh Review, praised everything except the lack of diagrams; while William Whewell gave it an in-depth technical scrutiny in the Quarterly Review for September 1834, concluding that it was a ‘masterly survey – if Mrs Somerville will excuse that word’. For Whewell, the book performed a vital task of intellectual unification. It arrived at a critical moment when the expanding body of science had been in danger of professional disintegration, ‘like a great empire falling to pieces’. Moreover, it was Whewell’s essay which prompted the creation of the new professional concept, and a new umbrella word to define it: ‘scientist’.

  Abroad, the book was praised by Jean-Baptiste Biot in Paris, saluted by Joseph Henry in Washington, and ‘deeply admired’ by Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin. Yet perhaps most satisfactorily of all, the popular large-circulation journal the Mechanics’ Magazine for March 1834 advised its many readers against putting Mary Somerville’s Connexion on their shelves: ‘Instead of that we simply say – read it! read it.’


  How did Mary Somerville come to write it? The daughter of a naval officer, Vice-Admiral William Fairfax, she grew up ‘a savage’ in the little port of Burntisland on the Firth of Forth, wandering the seashore, collecting shells and studying seabirds, and fascinated by the legend of the Kraken (that Tennyson soon put into poetry). Growing up with an elder brother, she soon learned to hold her own. It was reported that a visiting military uncle taught her to swear, and that when asked by a lady in the street what her name was, replied in her strong Scottish accent, ‘Wha’s your business, you damned Bitch?’

  Unexpectedly, the glimpse of a mathematical competition in the back of a woman’s fashion magazine, with mysterious references to ‘algebra’, seized her imagination at the age of fifteen. She begged her brother’s tutor to include her in his lessons on Euclid, and with some misgivings, this was permitted. The fascination with Euclidian geometry soon led her on with astonishing rapidity to Newton’s optics, and then Laplace’s astronomy and mathematics. Forbidden candles at night, she would lie in bed listening to the sea and solving equations in her head.

  How remarkable this was for a young woman of Somerville’s time and social background is vividly illustrated by an incident in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The novel was published a generation later, in 1860, but it is set in England around the early 1800s, and draws on Mary Ann Evans’s decided views of the historic short-comings of female education. Like Mary Somerville, the young Maggie Tulliver is sharing lessons with her beloved elder brother Tom. Tom is constantly teasing her about her total inability – as a silly girl – to master subjects like Latin or geometry. These things are only for boys. Maggie appeals to their tutor, the strict but kindly Reverend Walter Stelling, hoping for his support.

  ‘Mr. Stelling,’ she said, that same evening when they were in the drawing-room, ‘couldn’t I do Euclid, and all Tom’s lessons, if you were to teach me instead of him?’

  ‘No, you couldn’t,’ said Tom, indignantly. ‘Girls can’t do Euclid; can they, sir?’

  ‘They can pick up a little of everything, I dare say,’ said Mr. Stelling. ‘They’ve a great deal of superficial cleverness; but they couldn’t go far into anything. They’re quick and shallow.’

  Mary Somerville was quick and deep, and went far in everything. Launched upon Edinburgh society at eighteen, and now a notable beauty, she mixed with the liberal Edinburgh Review set, flirted with the elderly geologist William Playfair (‘I did not dislike a little quiet flirtation’), and continued her studies under the serious tuition of William Wallace, the future Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University. At this time she described herself as ‘intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low’.

  A disastrous first marriage to the dashing but unreliable Samuel Greig, who held the post of naval attaché to the Russian consulate in London, was curtailed by Greig’s early death, possibly from alcoholism, in 1807. After a liberated period of widowhood back in Edinburgh, supporting her baby son Woronzow (a Russian name that had been insisted on by Greig), Mary found her true soulmate. This was her cousin William Somerville FRS, a genial physician who had travelled halfway round the globe in naval service. He was a handsome, kindly and experienced man in his mid-forties, who perfectly understood Mary’s scientific gifts, and evidently adored her. They married in 1812, when Mary was thirty-one, and quickly had four more children, though only two daughters survived. They settled in London, and through William’s connections with the Royal Society, soon got to know all the leading scientific men bo
th there and in Paris, including Herschel, Babbage, Faraday and François Arago.

  Mary first put her mathematics to work by completing a translation of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s highly technical Méchanique Céleste. After immense and covert labour (‘I hid my papers as soon as the bell announced a visitor, lest anyone should discover my secret’) she completed an outstanding translation and interpretation of Laplace’s difficult astronomical book on the structure and mathematics of the solar system, retitling it The Mechanism of the Heavens (1830). It was an extraordinary succès d’estime. Her translation became the standard textbook for science postgraduates at Cambridge (unheard of for a woman author), and the ‘Preliminary Dissertation’, republished separately in 1832, made her known to a general reading public.

  Characteristically, the well-disposed Edinburgh Review picked out the gender of the translator: ‘Mrs Somerville is the only individual of her sex in the world who could have written it.’ She was referred to in a parliamentary debate on scientific education. Her friend, the novelist Maria Edgeworth, described Mary admiringly: ‘She has her head in the stars, but feet firm upon earth … intelligent eyes … Scotch accent … the only person in England who understands Laplace.’

  Encouraged by John Herschel and her supportive husband William, Mary then launched upon a general science book for Murray. Much of The Connexion was in fact researched and written during a long visit to Paris in 1832–34. By now their two daughters, Martha and Mary, were in their teens, and Mary’s son Woronzow was studying law in London, so the Somervilles were free to travel. Taking an apartment off the Champs Élysées, they set out to develop all their scientific contacts. Here the importance of the new social networking in science was vital, as was Mary’s excellent French (apparently spoken with a ‘captivating’ Scottish accent).

  Laplace himself was now dead, but they were received as honoured guests by his influential widow, the Marquise. They dined frequently with Arago, Biot and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and were taken on special visits to the Paris Observatory, the Anatomy Theatre, the Institute, the Museum of Natural History and the Jardin des Plantes. They were given privileged access to the private laboratories of the pioneers of electrical theory, Ampère and Becquerel, which meant that Mary was soon up-to-the-minute in the latest work on magnetism. She was in effect becoming an expert reporter on the latest developments of both British and European science. She sent her proofs back to London in the diplomatic bag.

  The Connexion emphasised, in a wholly new way, the teamwork and communal nature of science as a global project. Mary referred to the varied, and often heroic, endeavours of its pioneers across the whole globe. She mentions Sir John Franklin exploring in the Arctic regions; Biot and Gay-Lussac flying a balloon to altitudes over twenty thousand feet above Paris; John Herschel observing the nebulae in South Africa; Humboldt investigating plant distribution in South America, or descending into the silver mines of Mexico; Professor Joseph Henry building massive electromagnets in Albany, New York State; a dozen European astronomers making their separate observations of the return of Halley’s Comet; and even a certain Mrs Graham courageously staying to make notes on a massive earthquake in Valparaiso.

  The great physicist James Clerk Maxwell wrote retrospectively in 1870: ‘It was one of those suggestive books which put into definitive, intelligible and communicative form the guiding ideas that are already working in the minds of men of science, so as to lead them to discoveries, but which they cannot yet shape into a definitive statement.’ He must have had in mind particularly Somerville’s Chapter 34, on electromagnetism, in which she refers to the ‘occult connection’ between electricity, magnetism and light, which ‘opens a noble field for experimental research for philosophers of present, perhaps of future ages!’

  The immediate success of the book was measured in personal recognition, to a degree hitherto quite exceptional for a British woman in science (and utterly different from the scandalous notoriety of Margaret Cavendish). Mary wrote: ‘We are much out. I am a kind of tame Lioness at present.’ She added characteristically that even her daughters, Martha and Mary, basked in her reflected glory and were much ‘cubberized’ in society.

  To emphasise this approval, Mary and William were invited to spend a whole week in the male stronghold of Cambridge in April 1834. They were treated as celebrities, given rooms in Trinity College, provided with a four-poster bed (‘a thing utterly out of our regular monastic system’), wined and dined by all the leading science professors including Sedgwick and Whewell, and taken on a tour of the University Observatory. ‘We have no cannons at Trinity,’ wrote Sedgwick, ‘otherwise we would fire a salute on your entry.’

  Though she was disbarred by statute from becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, a formidable marble bust of Mary was commissioned from Sir Francis Chantrey, and finally installed in the Society’s Great Hall. She had poems dedicated to her, and a merchant sailing ship – a racy tea-clipper – named after her, with her wooden figurehead carved at the prow.

  She received a government Civil List pension of £200 (increased to £300 in 1837), Membership of the Royal Academy at Dublin (1834), the Genevan Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle (1834), and Honorary Membership of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, a quiet triumph she shared with none other than Caroline Herschel.


  A second, and greatly augmented, edition of The Connexion appeared in 1835. Mary now meticulously incorporated additional material and comments sent in by Herschel, Faraday, Arago and several other researchers. This practice continued in all subsequent editions, thereby making the book a new kind of science publication, regularly subject to ‘referee’ and updated. In an essay of 1962 Thomas Kuhn picked it out as ‘a new look’ in contemporary British science. The book was steadily republished throughout Mary’s lifetime, running to ten editions and shaping the progressive idea of science for more than half a century. The last, posthumous, edition of 1877 was specially edited for Murray by Charles Lyell’s assistant, the brilliant popular science writer Arabella Buckley.

  Mary Somerville had become a ‘Whig icon’ of female abilities, modest in public, but in private unorthodox, witty, with a sharp sense of the ridiculous. She was popular among the young and progressive. One of the many people she attracted was the nineteen-year-old Augusta Ada Byron, who had read The Connexion with admiration, and found in Mary a role model for women in science. Mary took her under her wing, collecting her regularly in her coach, and helping to liberate her from her formidable mother Lady Byron’s apron strings. In 1834 she began introducing Ada to her lively circle of scientific friends, among whom was Charles Babbage. So began their famous collaboration on the presentation of Babbage’s analytical engine.

  The relationship between the fifty-year-old Mary and her aristocratic young protégée was partly one between mathematical mentor and pupil, and involved the exchange of mathematical problems. Mary also took Ada to Dionysus Lardner’s scientific lectures, and chaperoned her early visits to Babbage, which produced breathless excitement. Ada wrote: ‘I am afraid that when a machine, or a lecture, or anything of the kind, comes in my way, I have no regard to time, space, or any ordinary obstacles.’

  Ada even felt confident enough to tease Mary about the marble bust presented to the Royal Society: ‘I’m afraid I shall never like Mr Chantrey, & declare I won’t admire his bust of you, out of spite.’ In turn, Mary solemnly praised Ada for her knitting skills, and joked about her cat, Puff. When Ada, married and known as the Countess Lovelace, later published her historic paper on Babbage’s prototype computer, Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage Esq, Mary’s friend the bestselling Scottish author Joanna Baillie wrote to the Somervilles on 25 March 1844: ‘The Lady whom we know so well as little Ada, whose chief conversation used to be about a Persian cat, Puff by name, is beginning to be known in the literary world.’

  Despite all this social success and professional recognition, the Somervilles’ private life was unsettle
d. Mary still wished to pursue her own science, and published two small technical papers in 1835 and 1845, both on the impact of sunlight on certain chemicals and plants (not unrelated to the invention of photography). Yet she found that domestic life made it impossible to return to prolonged original research or mathematics. In 1835 William sustained financial losses through loans he had made to a cousin, and despite his salary from the Chelsea Hospital, and Mary’s own pension and book royalties, they struggled to live more economically. When the smaller house to which they moved in Chelsea, near the Thames, proved unhealthy, and William, now in his mid-sixties, became ill, they considered retiring to a warmer climate.

  In 1838, like many of their generation, they decided to try Italy, at first intending to stay for only a year. In 1839 William resigned from the hospital, and they struggled to put down permanent roots, first in Rome and then in Florence (just before the Brownings also arrived there). It was not easy. In 1841 William wrote to his son that he was now seventy years old, but had not achieved ‘a quiet and undisturbed life’, had no real home, and because of finances, was ‘without prospect of being able to return to England!’ Yet throughout all these upheavals he remained his wife’s ‘generous and kind-hearted’ supporter and assistant, never jealous, never impatient, copying manuscripts and searching out books, accompanying her in society. ‘No trouble seemed too great which he bestowed upon her,’ observed their daughter Martha; ‘it was a labour of love.’

  Mary Somerville went on to complete two more survey-style science books in Italy. The first, Physical Geography, appeared in 1848, the year of the European revolutions, reflecting the new comprehensive discipline of global geography which had been largely pioneered by Alexander von Humboldt. The first volume of Humboldt’s own celebrated Cosmos had been published three years previously, but Humboldt was lavish in his generous praise of Mary’s work. She had in fact begun the book before she and William left London, and its final chapters gave a hopeful, panoramic view of the civilising role of science in the rapidly expanding British Empire.


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