Scientist of the Day - Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville, a Scottish mathematician and science writer, died Nov. 28, 1872, at the venerable age of 91. Somerville was one of the most highly praised female scientific writers of the 19th century. Between 1798 and 1825, the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace published his Traité de mécanique céleste, a comprehensive 5-volume updating of Isaac Newton's celestial physics. Somerville read and digested the entire work, and in 1831, she published Mechanism of the Heavens, a rather free translation of Laplace's work and considerably easier to understand than the original (see second image above). Laplace said to her, before he died in 1827, that there had been only three women who understood his work: Mary Somerville, Caroline Herschel, and a Mary Grieg whom he had never met. Little did Laplace know that Mary Somerville had been Mary Grieg before her first husband died, so she actually occupied 2/3 of Laplace's list.
We do not have the Mechanism of the Heavens in the Library, but in 1834, Somerville published the first of a number of popular scientific books, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, and we have three editions of this book, including the first (see third image above), in the History of Science Collection, as well as several of her later publications. Interestingly, the philosopher William Whewell wrote a review of On the Connexion of the Sciences in 1834, and in the review he coined the word "scientist" as an appropriate name for a person who dabbles in experimental natural philosophy. Somerville has her blue plaque in Jedburgh, Scotland, where she was born (fourth image above).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City