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Who is Mary Somerville? (Scottish Astrophysicist); Biography, Marriage, Achievements, Google Doodle

Google Doodle Celebrates Mary Somerville

Today 2 February 2020, Google Doodle is celebrating Scottish astrophysicist genius, Mary Somerville. But who is she and what makes her such an incredible person?

Who was Mary Somerville? Biography 

Mary Somerville was a groundbreaking Scottish polymath who paved the way for women in science. She was the first woman to be published by the Royal Society of London on February 2, 1876. Mary Somerville was born in Jedburgh, on 26th December 1790, into a middle-class family. Somerville was the daughter of Vice-Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, scion of a distinguished family of Fairfaxes, and she was related to several prominent Scottish houses through her mother, the admiral’s second wife, Margaret Charters, daughter of Samuel Charters, a solicitor. According to the Independent, she spent her early years helping her mother with chores at home, before she was sent to boarding school for proper education at the age of 10. At school, she became a good painter and learned about Geometry something that was rare for a woman at the time. Spurred by Euclid’s ‘Elements of geometry’, she started teaching herself astronomy and maths before publishing her own works.

Marriage 

Mary married Samuel Greig in 1804 when she was 24 years old. Her husband was a naval officer who was a distant relation on her mother’s side of the family. Samuel Greig’s father was a nephew of Mary’s maternal grandfather). Samuel was in the Russian navy and Mary’s parents did not allow the marriage until Greig received an appointment in London, for they did not want Mary to go to Russia. Mary and Samuel Greig went to London but Mary found that her husband did not understand her desires to learn. She later wrote,

He had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of, nor interest in, science of any kind. 

Samuel later died 3 years later after the marriage and by this time Mary had given birth to two sons and on the death of her husband she returned to Scotland with them. She now had a circle of friends who strongly encouraged her in her studies of mathematics and science.

In 1812, Mary married William Somerville who was an inspector of hospitals. William was the son of her aunt Martha and her husband Thomas Somerville in whose manse she had been born. Unlike her first husband, William was supportive of her desires to study as was he interested in science.

Mary Somerville Achievements 

Somerville is the joint-female member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the first person to ever be described as a ‘scientist’. She wrote the first physics paper to be published by a female author in the prestigious Philosophical transactions, the worlds oldest science publication, which is still active today. Her works revolutionised astronomy and physics which led to the discovery of planet Neptune by astronomer John Couch Adams. Somerville was also a vocal advocate for equal rights and the first person to sign the 1866 women’s suffrage petition by John Stuart Mill. She has the Mary Somerville Medal and prize named after her for scientists who engage the public through their work.

Aside from technically being the ‘scientist’ her most notable works include;

    • The connection of the physical sciences (1834), which became among the best selling science books of the 19th century, where she revealed the underlying links between the different disciplines of physical science.
    • The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831), an essay that revolutionized the existing understanding of the solar system.
    • She is credited with discovering Neptune because of her suggestions that there is a planer near Uranus.

On October 4, 2017, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), issued a £10 plastic note with her on it, alongside a quote from her best-selling book. The note followed the 2016 release of Scottish novelist and poet Nan Shepherd, who appeared on the fiver. It was the first new version of the note circulated in 30 years.

Google Doodle 

A google doodle is a special but temporary alteration of the logo on Google’s homepages intended to commemorate holidays, events, achievements, and notable historical events. The first Google Doodle honoured the 1998 edition of the long-running Burning Man event in Black Rock, City Nevada and was designed by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to notify users of their absence in case the servers crashed.

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