Earth and Space

Somerville the first scientist

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 IOP RESOURCES

Mary Somerville was a remarkable polymath who published research on a number of scientific topics as well as writing popular science books. Born in 1780, from a young age, Somerville was determined to receive an education, writing:

From my earliest years, my mind revolved against oppression and tyranny, and I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men.

She was also a principled young woman — Mary and her brother refused sugar in their tea in protest at the slave trade. Somerville worked on developing Laplace’s mechanics to explain the deviation of planets’ orbits from perfect ellipses and the complex motion of the Moon around the Earth. She noted the perturbations of Uranus’ orbit and predicted the existence of Neptune. Her book, On the Connexion of the Physical Science, was amongst the best-selling science books of the 17th century. In addition to her contributions to astrophysics, Somerville was perhaps the first person to be labelled a ‘scientist’, a term used by a reviewer of one of her books in 1834.


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