Mar. 24th, 2010

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It is still (just barely) Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging to celebrate women in science and technology. If you read this site, I presume I do not need to explain who Augusta Ada King, née Byron, Countess of Lovelace was, or why so many find her awesome. My subject instead is Ada’s mentor, Mary Somerville.

I am going to poach most of this post from Jay Clayton’s book, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. My apologies for the blatant steal. Clayton’s book is excellent, and you should read it if you are interested in Charles Dickens, Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, steampunk, neo-Victorianism, The Difference EngineCryptonomicon, Richard Powers, postmodernism, consilience, the nineteenth century, the difference between the odd and the queer, or geekdom as a bridge between C.P. Snow’s two cultures.  As I am interested in all of those things, I will post about the book again, I’m sure.

Back to Mary Somerville. Clayton writes:

Mary Somerville was once the First Lady of science. From her arrival in London in 1815 to her departure for the continent in 1838, where she spent the last thirty-four years of her life in obscurity, she blossomed into the most eminent female mathematician and astronomer in the world. Respected as an equal by English and French savants, she moved at the center of a London social world that included renowned poets, artists, scientists, and aristocrats. The woman who sat with the Pope on a sofa in the Vatican, attended the coronations of both George IV and Queen Victoria, stayed with General Lafayette in Paris, talked poetry with Ugo Foscolo and opera with Rossini, knew both James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, was intimate friends with Maria Edgeworth and Joanna Baillie, visited the studio of Turner, had her paintings praised by Hugh Blair and her feminism by John Stuart Mill, had an island named for her by the explorer Parry, was feted for a full week at Trinity College, Cambridge, by the entire science faculty, was the friend and colleague of Herschel, Babbage, and Faraday, introduced Charles Lyell to his future wife, and was the mentor of Ada Lovelace–this modest, shy, deeply generous person could say what few other women of the century could, that for nearly twenty years she was more illustrious for her scientific achievements than for her social position.

Somerville’s masterwork was On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834. It is often described, unfairly, as “popular science.” Somerville did write clearly and fluidly, and she was interested in broadening the appeal of science, particularly to women, but it is not really accurate to distinguish professional and popular science in the undisciplined intellectual culture of the early nineteenth century. Somerville’s work belongs instead, Clayton argues, to a genre Richard Yeo called “metascientific commentary.” Somerville played a key role in defining and categorizing the physical sciences of the time, and she helped to forge a consensus that the physical sciences–astronomy, meteorology, optics, heat, sound, mineralogy, electricity, magnetism–were, at some level, one.

Somerville was also “a passionate reformer,” Clayton writes, “from her girlhood boycott of sugar to protest slavery in the West Indies to her advanced positions opposing religious bigotry and favoring animal rights.” (This is something we cannot say of Ada Lovelace. Irresistible as it always is to reimagine Ada as the ass-kicking steampunk poster girl, Angelina Jolie in corset and goggles, she was no crusader, nor a feminist in any modern sense of the term.) Somerville was also part of an intellectual circle called “the Analyticals,” Charles Babbage among them, who fought to reform and professionalize English science. It was in an admiring review of Somerville’s Connexion that William Whewell, patron saint of consilience, coined the new word “scientist” to describe this breed of professional experimenters.

But the very professionalization of science which Somerville helped inspire ultimately strengthened and formalized barriers to her participation. As professional, institutionally-supported science spread, Somerville’s achievements were retroactively defined as works of popularization rather than original interventions into scientific culture. The professional organizations that she helped to promote almost never admitted women. When the British Association for the Advancement of Science was formed in the 1830s, Somerville’s many admirers in the association repeatedly invited her to attend its public lectures and evening parties, but not its working meetings. She declined their invitations so delicately that her male friends could believe she agreed that women ought to be barred from real scientific work. ”The pattern of her entire life suggests otherwise,” Clayton writes. “No one in England was more eager to hear and discuss the latest scientific intelligence than Mary Somerville.”

Somerville left England in 1838 and lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity, though her works remained in print through multiple revised and even posthumous editions. The last pages of her memoir describe the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1872, which she watched from her home in Naples at the age of 92, a keen-eyed scientific observer to the end. The only regrets she records are the knowledge that she would not live to see the full extirpation of slavery or the continued march of scientific progress. “Though far advanced in years,” Somerville wrote, “I take as lively an interest as ever in passing events. I regret that I shall not live to know the result of the expedition to determine the currents of the ocean, the distance of the earth from the sun determined by the transits of Venus, and the source of the most renowned of rivers.”

Ada Lovelace is cool, don’t get me wrong. But it has become difficult to see her clearly through the steam and the punks and the hey hey hey. She comes presoaked in alternate history and wishful thinking. Mary Somerville’s story is not quite as sui generis as Lovelace’s, but it should be no less important or impressive.

We need “a conception of history that registers the untimely,” Clayton writes. “Ways of responding to lost threads of the past, to forkings in history that seemed to have vanished with little trace, are crucial to the historical enterprise.” Off-centered, “untimely” figures like Somerville and Lovelace and Babbage,  he says, hold the promise of prompting us “to think again about how the past and present interact. It is … a promise that Mary Somerville’s story redeems.”

[Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome here or there.]

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