The public worth of Mary Somerville
journal contributionposted on 24.10.2012, 09:10 by Claire Brock
This article assesses the reputation of Mary Somerville in the 1830s and suggests that critical confusion over her status in the changing world of early nineteenth-century science is not new. Drawing on Somerville’s own writings, contemporary newspaper and periodical reviews, political debates and unpublished manuscripts, Somerville's ‘uniqueness’ as a public figure is examined through the eyes of both the nascent scientific community of the time as well as the wider audience for her work. Somerville's status as a popularizer and an educator is more complicated than may have previously been assumed and can be both confirmed and undermined by an analysis of contemporary public opinion. Although her works were directed at the public who indirectly paid her pension for services to science, Somerville's private and published comments about and within her writings offer an alternative interpretation. Despite an apparent turn to more popular works in order to bolster her finances, Mary Somerville relished the specialist aspect of her writings and valued the difficulties which prevented the ordinary reader from obtaining ultimate insight into celestial mechanics.