December 30, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science communication: Mary Somerville

Every so often, and yet again just before Christmas this year, little skirmishes erupt on the history of science scene when somebody says that the word ‘scientist’ was first coined for Mary Somerville. The claim is then rebuffed by pointing out that the term was first used in print in 1834 in a review of one of her popular science books but did not specifically refer to her in person.

After reading about this once more on Twitter I thought to myself: ‘Ok, you have read the blogs; you have read two wonderful books on the history of science where the word ‘scientist’ is discussed (The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder and The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes), but you have not read the review itself where the word was first used in print’. So I duly found it online; I didn’t even have to leave the house! I read it, and it told me more about an issue that I am interested in than I had expected: science communication. But first some context!

Mary Somerville

Mary Somerville was “a Scottish science writer and polymath. She studied mathematics and astronomy, and was nominated to be jointly the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society at the same time as Caroline Herschel. When John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher and economist, organised a massive petition to Parliament to give women the right to vote, he had Mary put her signature first on the petition. When she died in 1872, Mary Somerville was hailed by The London Post as ‘The Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science’” (Wikipedia).

If you want to know more about her life and work, you might want to read E. C. Patterson’s 1980 biography or the newer one by Allan Chapman, or a book that I should have read but which is still waiting on my shelves, namely Richard Holmes 2016 This Long Pursuit, reviewed here by Athene Donald.

Making science public in the 19th century

Mary lived, in a sense, right through the emergence of modern science and the emergence of the popularisation of science, similar in this to another fascinating woman, Caroline Herschel. Both Mary and Caroline lived to a great old age. Mary lived from 1780 to 1872 and died at the age of 91; Caroline lived from 1750 to 1848 and died at the age of 97. Caroline was an astronomer; Mary was a science writer and one of the most important early science communicators.

Many books and articles have been written about how she came to be a science writer. Here I just want to dip my toe in this literature and draw some lines of connection between Mary, the Herschel family and William Whewell, English polymath, scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, historian of science, Master of Trinity College Cambridge, and the author of the book review that contains the word ‘scientist’.

As Richard Holmes points out in an article on the Royal Society’s lost women scientists, “astronomer John Herschel FRS, the son of William [and Caroline’s nephew], and a future secretary of the Royal Society, was writing a series of historic letters on a new […] field: the public understanding of science. Unusually, his correspondent was a woman, Mary Fairfax Somerville. Their subject was the possibilities of ‘popularising’ the new cosmology of the great French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace, whose work, Mécanique céleste, was regarded as second only to Newton’s Principia.”

In 1830 Mary published the translation (and interpretation) of Laplace’s work under the title “The Mechanisms of the Heavens“. Whewell is said to have used this book for his “mathematical teaching in Cambridge – probably the first work by a woman to be used in high-level science teaching in Cambridge, or, perhaps, in any university” (see Chapman, 2016).

In another article Holmes tells us that in “1830, astronomer John Herschel wrote to natural philosopher William Whewell about the urgent need for ‘digests of what is actually known in each particular branch of science … to give a connected view of what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished’.”

In 1834 Mary published On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences and provided a connected view of astronomy, physics, geography and meteorology (in the 3rd edition of 1836 she “pays homage to Caroline Herschel, ‘a lady eminent for astronomical knowledge and discovery’”; see Chapman, 2016). Her book became a bestseller, read by many, including the famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt! It was reviewed anonymously by Whewell for the Quarterly Review in March 1834.

Science, scientists and science communication

Let us now turn to Whewell’s review. Whewell really loved this book and called it (apologising for the word) ‘masterly’ (p. 55). He engages in some rather dreadful speculations about how a woman was able to write such a book, but I’ll leave that aside here. I’ll focus instead on Whewell’s views on science communication and on Mary as a science communicator.

The review starts by describing two ways of communicating science, one trying to convey substantial but ‘sensible’ (in the sense of ‘readily perceived’) knowledge of scientific advances through the use of models, machines or diagrams; the other surveying the progress and prospects of science more generally, as well as establishing connections between fields.

I have just experienced yet again the first type of science communication while watching the annual Royal Institution Christmas lectures, initiated in 1825 by Michael Faraday, with whom Mary corresponded, and I hugely enjoy reading books that engage in the second type. This is what Whewell has to say about the two types of science communication:

“There are two different ways in which Physical Science may be made popularly intelligible and interesting: by putting forward the things of which it treats, or their relations; — by dwelling on the substance of discoveries, or on their history and bearing; — by calling up definite images and trains of reasoning; or by taking these for granted, and telling what can be told in general terms concerning such matters. Popular knowledge of the former kind ought to be conveyed by he public lecturer, when, by means of his models, his machines, his diagrams, he exhibits to the senses complexities of form and position which it would baffle us to conceive without such sensible representation. Popular knowledge of the latter kind may be conveyed by the same lecturer, when, turning from his apparatus, he explains to his audience the progress and prospects of his science, the relation of what is now doing to that which has already been done, the bearing of new facts on one subject upon theory in another. Each of these two methods has its appropriate place and its peculiar advantages. The former excites notions perfectly distinct as far as they go, but is necessarily very limited in extent because such notions cannot be caught and held without close attention and considerable effort [don’t I know it!]; the latter method presents to us rapid views of connexion, dependence, and promise, which reach far and include much, but which are on that account necessarily incomplete and somewhat vague.” (Anonymous [Whewell], 1834, p. 54).

After further, rather bucolic, descriptions of this second more wide-ranging type of science communication, Whewell tells us that “Mrs Somerville’s work is, and is obviously intended to be a popular view of the present state of science, of the kind we have thus attempted to describe” (p. 55).

I’ll pick out two merits of this type of science writing discussed by Whewell, which are still important to science communication today. First, popular writers like Mary report on science responsibly. They don’t sensationalise and alarm unnecessarily; indeed they counteract popular hype or what Whewell, quoting François Arago, calls “horrible imaginings” (p. 58). Second, they establish, as the title of Mary’s book says, ‘connections’ between the sciences, thus counteracting a “tendency of the sciences that has long been an increasing proclivity to separation and dismemberment” (p. 59).

It is here, In the context of discussing this emerging ‘proclivity’ of science to split into subfields and Mary’s valued efforts to counteract it, that Whewell used the term ‘scientist’. He tells us that as a result of this disintegration of science there is now a “want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” He goes on to say:

“We are informed that this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings at York, Oxford and Cambridge, in the last three summers. There was no general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits. Philosophers was felt to be too wide and lofty a term, and was very properly forbidden them by Mr [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician; savans was rather assuming, besides being French instead of English; some ingenious gentleman [Whewell, himself!] proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist [one who knows only superficially], economist, and atheist–but this was not generally palatable…” (p. 59).

It would take quite a long time before the word ‘scientist’ became palatable and applied without thinking to the ‘men of science’. The word ‘scientist’ still doesn’t usually conjure up images of ‘women of science’ such as Mary or Caroline.

Mary Somerville was a pioneer in science and science communication. I wonder when the word ‘science communicator’ was first used and by whom and what pictures it conjures up. Is there also a gender gap, but perhaps of a different type? That would deserve some further investigation.

PS: And here is a much more detailed account by a real historian of science, Thony Christie!

Image: © Copyright Jim Barton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Posted in Science Communication