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Mary Somerville and the World of Science

Allan Chapman
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Springer Briefs in History of Science and Technology
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The Basic Library List Committee recommends this book for acquisition by undergraduate mathematics libraries.

[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

When the overall story of science is told, the name of Mary Somerville does not generally emerge to prominence, yet she was one of the most amazing “Renaissance women” of the nineteenth century. She was raised in an era when women were not considered intellectually capable of doing the complex work of science (or much of anything else), yet she was an existence proof that scientific work could be done by females and the world would benefit.

The range of her writings is amazing in both depth and breadth, ranging across nearly all of the sciences. Her first book to receive accolades was The Mechanism of the Heavens,  her translation of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste, a mathematical examination of the movement of heavenly bodies through their orbits. One of the most amazing facts is that her book Physical Geography, written in 1848, was used as a textbook for over a half-century (in many later editions of course). Although the advancement of science was slower then, it was still rapidly advancing, so this is a demonstration of her thoroughness and the quality of her writing.

This book is a biography meant for the masses; there is very little technical content and no equations. It could be easily read by all students, starting from approximately eighth grade and up. And it should be read, for Somerville’s accomplishments were amazing. When the early role of women in science is covered, the name Marie (Madam) Curie is generally first in line. However, she was predated by Mary Somerville by nearly a century and Somerville had an enormous influence on other scientists. She influenced scientists in all fields, from electricity (James Clerk Maxwell) to astronomy (John Couch Adams), as well as chemistry.

As the world still struggles to properly manage its female human resources, this is an important book for people of all genders to read. Somerville can serve as a role model for both genders, as she demonstrated the value of perseverance and dedication in the face of great resistance.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.