We’re lucky to have a lot of inspiring, smart and enterprising women in our neck of the woods these days, but this is nothing new! Set your time machine to the 1780s, head to Burntisland, and you might just come across a gifted young girl called Mary Fairfax.
Mary was interested in everything, but educating women was not the norm, and there were several attempts to squash her aptitude over the years. Her voracious reading was quickly replaced by the more appropriate needlework, and eyebrows were raised when she hoped to learn to write and read more than just the Bible. All this only stoked her determination and sense of justice and she rapidly became a leader in many fields – even besides her huge scientific achievements, she was the first signatory on John Mills’ petition for votes for women, and protested against slavery.
Mary was incredibly accomplished, learning Latin and Greek alongside modern languages, and taking advantage of her family connections to develop her interests in the sciences. She was a student of chemistry, geography, microscopy, electricity and magnetism, and best known today for her work in maths and astronomy. She started solving mathematical problems posed in a well-known maths journal, and was awarded a medal for her abilities.
Mary continued to mix with the great minds of the day as she published pioneering scientific research. She hung out with writers and artists such as Walter Scott and JMW Turner, and was the maths tutor of ‘first computer programmer’, Ada Lovelace. In 1831, she published an exposition of the workings of the solar system, under the title of The Mechanism of the Heavens. It made her instantly famous.
Mary’s calculations cannot be underestimated. She resolved many great blocks in maths and science, promoted calculus in a Newtonian country, and even accurately predicted the discovery of Neptune. Her great passion for astronomy stemmed from a sense it connected the sciences very elegantly:
We perceive the operation of a force which is mixed up with everything that exists in the heavens or on earth; which pervades every atom, rules the motions of animate and inanimate beings, and is as sensible in the descent of a rain-drop as in the falls of Niagara; in the weight of the air, as in the periods of the moon
Her books were incredibly successful and she was very well known in her own time. Her name has been immortalised in a Cambridge college (Somerville College of course), Somerville Square in Burntisland, a school and even an island in Canada. She lived until she was 91, writing right into her old age.
Now, how’s that for a #mondaymotivation ?