Mary Somerville & the Science of Empire

A review of Speaking for Nature: Mary Somerville and the Science of Empire, by Michal Meyer.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) is an intriguing figure in the history of science; unusually for a woman, she managed to gain a reputation for herself as an elite practitioner of science, rather than as just a communicator of men’s intellectual product. That Somerville achieved this status, whereas women in the later decades of the nineteenth century faced great obstacles in sustaining a serious scientific reputation, requires an analysis that delves deep into the historically changing understandings, meanings, connections and representations of science.

With the engagingly-written Speaking for Nature: Mary Somerville and the Science of Empire, Michal Meyer has provided just such an ambitious and far-reaching analysis. The dissertation extends well beyond biography — and indeed gender — to paint a detailed picture of early nineteenth-century educated society and the ways in which Somerville’s science both informed, and was informed by, the cultural, social, religious and political understandings of her time and class. The resulting ‘landscape’ (a key explanatory construct of the work) illuminates the interconnections between natural theology, empire, progress, political economy and stability, moral improvement and the arts.

Refreshingly — and productively — Meyer pays equal attention to Somerville’s wider scientific output, including On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869) and the book which is usually the focus of attention, Mechanism of the Heavens (1831). The latter is a translation and, importantly, also an explanation and extension of Laplace’s notoriously difficult Mécanique Céleste, the key work of astronomical physics of its day. Meyer also makes use of Somerville’s Personal Recollections (1874) and personal correspondence, including some letters only recently processed by the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland and so presumably not readily available to scholars before.

Discussion of gender, and Somerville as ‘Domestic Scientific Icon’ (p. 22), features in the first chapter which serves as an introduction and backdrop to the dissertation. Somerville, whose culture and assumptions were embedded in her science, is situated with reference to her childhood influences in Scotland and her later milieu amongst London’s scientific elite. Here we have science as a gentlemanly, and gentlewomanly, pursuit, an understanding  jettisoned by later nineteenth-century processes of professionalism and pursuit of ‘objectivity’. Both of these effectively excluded the domestic sphere from science and, with it, women. The rest of the dissertation recreates this earlier scientific world as an interconnected landscape populated densely with complementary ideas, moral codes, aspirations and assumptions.

Somerville’s religious instincts and the ways in which they infuse Mechanism of the Heavens (written at a time when polite British society was still reeling from fears of social instability prompted by the French Revolution) is the theme of chapter 2. Meyer extends familiar readings by illustrating how Somerville reconciled Laplace’s deterministic model of the heavens — at once French and dangerously atheistic to British eyes — with a traditional natural theology which placed god as guarantor of stability and progress within a mechanistic system: ‘… the intelligibility of science rests on this guarantee.’ (p.77)

Meyer’s meticulous dissection of Physical Geography in chapters 3-5 presents insight into the world view of an early-nineteenth-century liberal elite coloured by Scottish Enlightenment ideas about the connection of progress to knowledge. Science, argues Meyer, in its widest sense as the circulation and practice of learning, fitted neatly within this conception; it was supportive rather that disruptive of empire, commerce and technology, and connected and explained natural, social and moral worlds. Here the conduct of science and the conduct of the scientist are intrinsically linked; for example Somerville was appalled by vivisection as a vehicle for the production of knowledge and viewed such dissection as against the moral conduct and meanings of science.

At times a startlingly ‘modern’ Somerville is revealed with sentiments prefiguring those of the twentieth century. Although she regarded some animal extinctions as inevitable, others were regrettable as they were not linked to progress or enlightened commerce: the capture of the Greenland whale was ‘attended with much cruelty… indeed the custom of killing the calf in order to capture the mother has ruined fishery in several places.’ (p.254)

Within Somerville’s unifying vision — a vision which cast science as the thread which kept moral, social and natural worlds together — human activity was conceived as an intrinsic part of nature. Meyer shows skilfully how this conception became redundant later in the century, and how this accounted for the poor, even confused, reception of Somerville’s later On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869) by a fast-developing scientific community in the processes of fragmentation and specialisation.

Chapter 6 returns to the importance of religion to Somerville’s life and science; again Meyer provides new insights into a subject often explored. We are introduced to the ‘public’, ‘private’, and again ‘modern’, Somerville, including her frustration with Cambridge intellectual William Whewell’s persistence in arguing against extra-terrestrial life and that the earth could be the only possible inhabited planet. (p.287)

Early on, Meyer makes use of an amusing incident to reveal the tensions generated by Somerville’s identity as both woman and scientist: an admirer of the lady mathematician’s supreme expertise in ‘sublime’ astronomy was disappointed to find her in person not a being ‘of another order’ but ‘a mincing, smirking person, fan in hand, gliding about the room, talking nothings and nonsense.’ (p.35) He had ‘expected a goddess, not a domesticated Scotswoman who delighted in talk of clothes and fashion.’ (p.92) Meyer’s achievement is to connect the domestic and the scientific Somerville and illustrate how both were embedded in the social, cultural and religious assumptions and issues of her day.

This meticulously researched and argued dissertation makes a valuable contribution to scholarship on Somerville, complementing and extending the debates of Kathryn Neeley’s 2001 Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination and the Female Mind (Cambridge University Press). It is also of importance to the wider body of scholarship on the social production of scientific knowledge, especially the expanding literature on science and empire.

Claire G Jones
School of History
University of Liverpool

Primary Sources

Mary Somerville’s published works including Mechanism of the Heavens (1831); On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834); Physical Geography (1848) and On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869).
Somerville Collection (correspondence), Bodleian Library, Department of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts, Oxford.
John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland (correspondence).
Contemporary reviews and commentaries on Somerville’s writing.

Dissertation Information

University of Florida. 2010. 347pp. Primary Advisor: Frederick Gregory.


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  1. I work in the history of astronomy, at the University of Cambridge. I have to declare an interest in Mary Somerville: my wife and my older daughter are both Somervillians. About 15 years ago I arranged for the International Astronomical Union to name Minor Planet 5771 as “Somerville” (my own rock is Minor Planet 4027 Mitton). Claire’s review indicates that this is an important dissertation. In my own research I have been working on astronomers who made important discoveries, but who are neglected today by the writers of astronomy textbooks and popular science. For example, I recently completed a memoir on Thomas Gold FRS, who was important in cosmology in the late 1940s – early 1950s. I am currently promoting Georges Lemaitre (1894 – 1966) who is at last being acknowledged as the “father of the Big Bang”. He had the essential features of an exploding expanding universe worked out from Einstein’s field equations in 1927, fully two years before Edwin Hubble announced his eponymous “law”. Right now I am writing a paper on (Bishop) Robert Grosseteste (1175 – 1253), and I was lecturing on his cosmology at Lincoln Cathedral this past weekend.

    I’ve managed to collect signed first editions of Connection of the Physical Sciences and Physical Geography. I picked up a battered filthy copy of Mechanism of the Heavens a few years ago. Fortunately John Murray printed on high quality paper so I was able (for a price!) to get the book nicely cleaned (by washing in cold water) and resewn. Currently I’m paying for the restoration of the books with dedications that Somerville presented to the Library of the Royal Astronomical Society – these were in such a bad way that the Library was no longer putting them out on display.

    In Frederick Gregory’s magnum opus I hope there is some comment about how Somerville’s translation ws instrumental in bring the techniques of continental analysis to English and Scotish mathmaticians

    Simon Mitton
    St Edmund’s College

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