STEM Women in Physical Sciences: Mary Somerville

 

I wrote this for STEM Women about Mary Somerville, the woman who made science so popular that she inspired the word “scientist”!

The word “scientist” was coined by Philosopher William Whewell in his 1834 review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. While Somerville was obviously not the first person to practice science, it is a double delight that this term was invented to describe not only a woman in STEM, but also in praise of her public communication of science in beautiful and engaging prose. So in a sense, Somerville was not the first “scientist” but she was also the first science communicator to reach a broad public audience!

Nature.com blogs has published a wonderful review on the enduring impact of Somerville’s opus, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. It was an internationally best selling book that pre-dates Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by 25 years.

The first scientist

Somerville studied mathematics, but she also engaged in a wide-ranging scholarship of other disciplines. She translated French astronomy books into English and had political clout as a scientific authority in England. Like many scientists, Somerville had diverse interests and she was highly creative (she played the piano!).

She described herself as “intensely ambitious,” explaining that: “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.”

Her landmark book, On The Connexion… painted a vibrant picture of scientific discovery. Nature writes:

“In contrast to the vague speculations of eighteenth-century natural philosophy, her 500-page book covers a tight field of hard sciences — astronomy, physics, chemistry, geography, meteorology and electromagnetism. Its groundbreaking style, clear and logical, occasionally opens out into passages of sublime perspective, such as the description of universal gravity as a force equally present “in the descent of a rain drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon”. Somerville ranges over subjects from stellar parallax to terrestrial magnetism, from comets to giant seaweed.”

Read more about Somerville’s magnificent science writing on the Nature website.

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