Mary Somerville (nee Fairfax) was born at Jedburgh on December 26,1780, and died on November 30, 1872, at Naples, aged nearly ninety-two years. In considering her education, we have not to mention important seminaries, where skilled teachers make it their chief business to impart to others the knowledge for which they are themselves eminent, but to speak only of studies pursued in the calm of a quiet home. This, rightly understood, is perhaps the most remarkable feature of her career. There are few mathematicians so eminent as she deservedly was, in whose fame great public schools and universities do not in some degree partake. But we owe almost to accident the discovery of the powers of Mary Fairfax's mind, while the gradual development of those powers proceeded under the guidance of tutors unknown to fame, and with access only to such assistance as could be given by the friends of her own family.
Mrs. Somerville has herself described how it chanced that the peculiar powers of her mind came first to be recognised. She was in the habit of working at her needle in the window-seat, while her brother took his lessons in geometry and arithmetic. Fortunately (in her case) the work which is regarded as most suitable to the capacity of women leaves the mind unoccupied; and consequently there was nothing to prevent Mary Fairfax from attending to the lessons intended for her brother. She gradually became interested in the subject of these lessons, and took care not only to be present regularly, but to study her brother's books in her own room. It happened that, on one occasion, young Fairfax failed to answer a question addressed to him, and his sister involuntarily prompted him. The tutor was naturally surprised that the quiet Mary Fairfax should have any ideas beyond the needlework which had apparently engaged her attention; but, being a sensible man, he was at the pains to ascertain the degree and soundness of her knowledge, and, finding that she had really grasped the first principles of mathematics, he 'took care that she should have liberty to go on in her own way.' If a boy had shown similar fitness for mathematical research, anxious attention would have been devoted to the choice of books and teachers, school and university; but the case of a girl showing such tastes seemed to be adequately met by according to her the privilege of following her own devices. We shall never know certainly, though it may be that hereafter we shall be able to guess, what science lost through the all but utter neglect of the unusual powers of Mary Fairfax's mind. We may rejoice that, through an accident, she was permitted to reach the position she actually attained; but there is scarcely a line of her writings which does not, while showing what she was, suggest thoughts of what she might have been.
While studying mathematics 'in her own way,' she found a difficulty which for a time threatened to interfere with her progress. She was unable to read the Principia, because she could not understand Latin. In this strait, she applied, 'after much hesitation, to Prof. Playfair. She asked if a woman might, without impropriety, learn Latin. After ascertaining the purpose which the young lady had in view -possibly in doubt lest she might follow in the steps of Anne Dacier Prof. Playfair told her that it would not, in his opinion, do her any harm to learn Latin in order to read the Principia. It is noteworthy, as having probably a bearing on the course which Mrs. Somerville's reading subsequently took, that Playfair was one of the few in this country who at that time appreciated the methods of the higher mathematical analysis, and had formed a just opinion of their power-' a power, however,' as Sir John Herschel well remarks, 'which he was content to admire and applaud rather than ready to wield.' His excellent review of the Mecanique Celeste probably gave (as Herschel suggests) a stronger impulse to the public mind in the direction of the higher analysis than he could have communicated by . any researches of his own.
It was not, however, as a mathematician that Mrs.
Somerville first became known to the world. A subject of research, exceedingly difficult and only to be pursued successfully under very favourable conditions, was undertaken by her during the life of her first husband, Captain Greig, son of High-Admiral Greig of the Rus-sian Navy. She sought to determine by experiment the magnetising influence of the violet rays of the solar spectrum. ' It is not surprising,' says Sir John Herschel on this subject, ' that the feeble though unequivocal indications of magnetism which she undoubtedly obtained should have been regarded by many as insufficient to decide the question at issue.' Nevertheless it was justly regarded as a noteworthy achievement that, in a climate so unsuitable as ours, any success should have been attained in a research of such extreme difficulty. That she achieved, and, what is more, deserved success, will be inferred from the words in which Sir John Herschel indicates his own opinion of the value of her results : ' To us,' he says, ' their evidence appears entitled to considerable weight; but it is more to our immediate purpose to notice the simple and rational manner in which her experiments were conducted, the absence of needless complication and refinement in their plan, and of unnecessary or costly apparatus in their execution, and the perfect freedom from all pretension or affected embarrassment in their statement.'
In 1832 Mrs. Somerville published the work on which, in our opinion, her fame in future years will be held mainly to depend. The Mechanism of the Heavens was originally intended to form one of the works published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, though it soon outgrew the dimensions suited for such a purpose. Indeed, it is remarkable that either Mrs. Somerville herself or Lord Brougham, at whose suggestion the work was undertaken, should suppose it possible to epitomise Laplace's magnum opus, or so to popularise it as to bring it within the scope of the Society's publications.