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Science – Mary Somerville

Science

Mary SomervilleDecember 26, 1780 – November 28, 1872.

Mary Somerville was a Scottish science writer and polymath, at a time when women’s participation in science was discouraged.

Image from Wikipedia

She was the daughter of Admiral Sir William George Fairfax, and was born at the manse of Jedburgh, in the Borders. She received a rather desultory education, and mastered algebra and Euclid in secret after she had left school, and without any external help. In 1804 she married her distant cousin, the Russian Consul in London, Captain Samuel Greig, who died in 1807; they had two children.

After the death of her husband the inheritance gave her the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. In 1812 she married another cousin, Dr William Somerville, inspector of the Army Medical Board, who encouraged and greatly aided her in the study of the physical sciences. They had a further four children.

After her marriage she made the acquaintance of the most eminent scientific men of the time, among whom her talents had attracted attention before she had acquired general fame, Laplace paying her the compliment of stating that she was the only woman who understood his works. Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace was a French mathematician and astronomer who put the final capstone on mathematical astronomy by summarizing and extending the work of his predecessors in his five volume Mécanique Céleste (Celestial Mechanics).

Having been requested by Lord Brougham to translate for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge the Mécanique Céleste of Laplace, she greatly popularized its form, and its publication in 1831, under the title of The Mechanism of the Heavens, at once made her famous. Her other works are the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834), Physical Geography (1848), and Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). In 1835, she and Caroline Herschel became the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1838 she and her husband went to Italy, where she spent much of the rest of her life.

From Wikipedia : The English Cemetery, Naples. Statue of Mary Somerville is in the background.

Much of the popularity of her writings was due to their clear and crisp style and the underlying enthusiasm for her subject which pervaded them. In 1835 she received a pension of £300 from government. She died at Naples on November 28, 1872, and is buried in the English Cemetery there. In the following year there appeared her autobiographical Personal Recollections, consisting of reminiscences written during her old age, and of great interest both for what they reveal of her own character and life and the glimpses they afford of the literary and scientific society of bygone times.

Somerville College, Oxford, was named after Mary Somerville. The term “scientist” was first coined by William Whewell in an 1834 review of Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Sciences. Sommerville House, Burntisland is named after her. She lived in the building for some of her life.

Mary Somerville also knew and taught Ada Lovelace and it was Mary who introduced Ada to Charles Babbage in June 1833.

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Footsteps

Footsteps - image created by Maggie Baldry

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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the authors.  Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in this work neither the author, contributors, employees or advisers are able to accept any legal liability for any consequential loss or damage, however caused, arising as a result of any actions taken on the basis of the information contained in this work. All third-party brands and trademarks belong to their respective owners.  Please note this notice is to protect the source research material. Please feel free to link and quote with references back to this page. Thank you. Copyright : Maggie Baldry

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Posted by on July 11, 2011 in History, Soft Footsteps

 

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Science – Émilie du Châtelet

Science

Émilie du Châtelet

December 17, 1706 – September 10, 1749

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet was a French mathematician, physicist, and author.

Image from Wikipedia : Portrait by Maurice Quentin de La Tour.

In 1737 she published a paper “Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu”, based upon her research into the science of fire. The science of fire is today known as infra-red radiation and the nature of light.

Her book “Institutions de Physique” appeared in 1740; it was presented as a review of new ideas in science and philosophy to assist her thirteen-year-old son with his studies. In it she combined the theories of Gottfried Leibniz and the practical observations of Willem ‘s Gravesande to show that the energy of a moving object is proportional to its mass and the square of its velocity (E ~ mv2), and not directly proportional as had previously been believed by Newton, Voltaire and others. When Einstein produced his famous equation for the energy of matter E = mc2 (where c represents the velocity of light), it accorded neatly with a principle recognised from over 150 years before.

In the year of her death she completed the work regarded as her outstanding achievement: her translation into French, with her own commentary, of Newton’s celebrated Principia Mathematica, including her derivation from its principles of mechanics the notion of conservation of energy. Today this is still the standard translation of the work into French.

Her father was Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to Louis XIV, whose position placed him at the center of social activity in the court, and thus gave the family great status. Her mother, Gabrielle Anne de Froulay, was brought up in a convent.

Émilie de Breteuil was a rather awkward child, and so she was given lessons in fencing, riding, and gymnastics in an attempt to improve her coordination. She was remarkably well educated for the time, and by the age of twelve she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German; she was later to publish translations into French of Greek plays and philosophy. Her family was acquainted with the writer Fontenelle. She received education in mathematics, literature and science. She also liked to dance, was a passable performer on the harpsichord, sang opera, and was an amateur actress. She was at times a high-stakes gambler, using her mathematical skills to lay out strategy.

On 20 June 1725 she married the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet, and thus became Marquise du Chastellet (the spelling Châtelet was introduced by Voltaire, and has now become standard). The marriage had been an arranged one and the couple had little in common, but the proprieties were observed in accordance with the mores of the time. There were three children and, considering her marital responsibilities fulfilled, Émilie and her husband agreed, while still maintaining one household, to live separate lives. The Marquis was a military man and governor of Semur-en-Auxois in Burgundy, whereas Émilie remained enthralled by the splendour of the royal court. In the upper classes of France at the time, it was acceptable for both the husband and wife to have a lover.

Introduction to Newton’s ideas

Image from Wikipedia : In the frontispiece to their translation of Newton, du Châtelet is depicted as the muse of Voltaire, reflecting Newton's heavenly insights down to Voltaire.

Émilie du Châtelet had three love affairs before she met Voltaire. At the age of twenty-four, she had an affair with the Duc de Richelieu that lasted for a year and a half. The Duc was interested in literature and philosophy, and Châtelet was one of the few women who could converse with him on his own level. She read every book of consequence, attended the theater regularly, and enjoyed intellectual debate. Châtelet expressed an interest in the works of Isaac Newton, and Richelieu encouraged her to take lessons in higher mathematics to better understand his theories. Moreau de Maupertuis, a member of the Academy of Sciences, became Châtelet’s tutor in geometry. He was a mathematician, astronomer and physicist, and supported Newton’s theories, which were a topic of hot debate at the Academy.

Châtelet invited Voltaire to live in her country house at Cirey-sur-Blaise in Haute-Marne, north-eastern France, and she became his long-time companion (under the eyes of her tolerant husband). There she studied physics and mathematics and published scientific articles and translations. To judge from Voltaire’s letters to friends and their commentaries on each other’s work, they lived together with great mutual liking and respect.

Châtelet’s last affair proved to be fatal. In her early 40s, she had an affair with the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert and became pregnant. In a letter to a friend she confided her fears that, because of her age, she would not survive her confinement. Châtelet bore the child, but died six days later from an embolism at the age of 42.

Voltaire declared that du Châtelet was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman“.

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Footsteps

Footsteps - image created by Maggie Baldry

Legal bit
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the authors.  Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in this work neither the author, contributors, employees or advisers are able to accept any legal liability for any consequential loss or damage, however caused, arising as a result of any actions taken on the basis of the information contained in this work. All third-party brands and trademarks belong to their respective owners.  Please note this notice is to protect the source research material. Please feel free to link and quote with references back to this page. Thank you. Copyright : Maggie Baldry

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2011 in History, Soft Footsteps

 

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Science – Maria Sibylla Merian

Science

In the same way that women have challenged ideas in art, information technology, education, entertainment and politics they have also had major triumphs in scientific development, not least making scientific subjects more accessible to all. Here we start in the seventeenth century by celebrating the achievements of Maria Sibylla Merian a naturalist and scientific illustrator, who contributed greatly to the science of entymology; Émilie du Châtelet, a mathematical genius, who, in the eighteenth-century wrote a paper on the nature of infra red radiation and translated into French Newton’s celebrated Principia Mathematica. Finally, moving to the nineteenth century, we recognise the work of Mary Somerville, who translated into English highly technical mathematical and astronomical papers into a language that could be understood by a wider audience.

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Maria Sibylla Merian  – April 2, 1647 – January 13, 1717

Image from Wikipedia The portrait of Anna Maria that was featured on a 500 DM note.

Anna Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist and scientific illustrator who studied plants and insects and made detailed paintings about them. Her detailed observations and documentation of the metamorphosis of the butterfly make her a significant, albeit not well known, contributor to entomology.

Maria Sibylla Merian was born April 2, 1647, into the family of Swiss engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian the Elder. Her father died three years later and in 1651 her mother married still life painter Jacob Marell. Marell encouraged Merian to draw and paint. At the age of 13 she painted her first images of insects and plants from specimens she had captured.

In my youth, I spent my time investigating insects. At the beginning, I started with silk worms in my home town of Frankfurt. I realised that other caterpillars produced beautiful butterflies or moths, and that silk worms did the same. This led me to collect all the caterpillars I could find in order to see how they changed.” Foreword from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium — Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam.

In 1665 Merian married Marell’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff. Two years later she had her first child, Johanna Helena, and the family moved to Nuremberg. While living there, Maria Sibylla continued painting, working on parchment and linens, and creating designs for embroidery patterns. She took on many students which helped the family financially, and increased their social standing. This provided her with access to the finest gardens, maintained by the wealthy and elite.

From Wikipedia : A painting showing the metamorphosis of Thysania agrippina produced in 1705. Another version exists in which all but the opened-winged butterfly is reversed.

In those gardens, Merian began studying insects, particularly the lifecycle of caterpillars and butterflies. The scholars of the time believed that insects came from “spontaneous generation of rotting mud“, an Aristotelian idea encouraged by the Catholic Church, which described insects as “beasts of the devil.” Against the prevailing opinion, Merian studied what actually happened in the transformation of caterpillars into beautiful butterflies. She took note of the transformations, along with the details of the chrysalises and plants that they used to feed themselves, and illustrated all the stages of their development in her sketch book.

This book of sketches turned into her first book, the first edition of which was sold in 1675 at the age of 28 under the title Neues Blumenbuch [New book of flowers]. In 1678 her second daughter, Dorotha Maria, was born, and one year later she published another book called Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung [The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food]. In this book she presented the stages of development of different species of butterflies along with the plants on which they fed.

In 1681 Jacob Marrell died and the Graff family returned to Frankfort in 1683 to handle the estate, including the house, art work, library and financial issues left unresolved at the time of his death. A lawsuit was filed by the fractured factions of the families. Upon its resolution in 1685, at the age of 38, Merian left her husband. Accompanied by her mother and daughters, she moved to the Labadist religious commune in Friesland, whose practices included celibacy. The family moved into a home owned by Cornelis van Sommelsdijk, the governor of Surinam. Here she studied the world of South American tropical flora and fauna.

Five years later her mother died and she moved to Amsterdam. Merian’s husband divorced her two years later, in 1692. In Amsterdam Merian and her work attracted the attention of various contemporary scientists. Her older daughter, Johanna Helena, married merchant Jacob Herolt and moved with him to Surinam, which was at that time a recently acquired Dutch colony.

From Wikipedia : A plate taken from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium


In 1699 the city of Amsterdam sponsored Merian to travel to Surinam along with her younger daughter, Dorothea Maria. Before departing, she wrote:

In Holland, I noted with much astonishment what beautiful animals came from the East and West Indies. I was blessed with having been able to look at both the expensive collection of Doctor Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam and director of the East Indies society, and that of Mr. Jonas Witsen, secretary of Amsterdam. Moreover I also saw the collections of Mr. Fredericus Ruyusch, doctor of medicine and professor of anatomy and botany, Mr. Livinus Vincent, and many other people. In these collections I had found innumerable other insects, but finally if here their origin and their reproduction is unknown, it begs the question as to how they transform, starting from caterpillars and chrysalises and so on. All this has, at the same time, led me to undertake a long dreamed of journey to Suriname.” Foreword in Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.

Merian worked in Surinam for two years, travelling around the colony and sketching local animals and plants. She also criticized the way Dutch planters treated Amerindian and black slaves. She recorded local native names for the plants and described local uses. In 1701 malaria forced her to return to Netherlands.

Back in the Netherlands she sold specimens she had collected and published a collection of engravings about the life in Surinam. In 1705 she published a book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium about the insects of Surinam.

In 1715 Merian suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed. She continued her work but the disease probably affected her ability to work; a later registry lists her as a pauper.

Maria Sibylla Merian died in Amsterdam on January 13, 1717. Her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother’s work, posthumously.

In the last years of the 20th century, the work of Merian has been rediscovered and recognised. For example, her portrait was printed on the 500 DM note before Germany converted to the Euro. Her portrait has also appeared on a 0.40 DM stamp, released on September 17, 1987, and many schools are named after her. In 2005, a modern research vessel named Maria S. Merian was launched at Warnemünde, Germany.

Her work

Merian worked as a botanic artist. She published three collections of engravings of plants in 1675, 1677 and 1680. Afterwards she studied insects, keeping her own live specimens, and made drawings about insect metamorphosis. In her time, it was very unusual that someone would be genuinely interested in insects, which had a bad reputation and were colloquially called “beasts of the devil.” As a consequence of their reputation, the metamorphosis of these animals was largely unknown. Merian described the life cycles of 186 insect species, amassing evidence that contradicted the contemporary notion that insects were “born of mud” by spontaneous generation.

From Wikipedia : A page taken from Erucarum Ortus.


Moreover, although certain scholars were aware of the process of metamorphosis from the caterpiller to the butterfly, the majority of people did not understand the process.

The work that Anna Maria Sibylla Merian published, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung [The Caterpillar, Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food], was very popular in certain sections of high society as a result of being published in the vernacular. However, it is notable that her work was largely ignored by scientists of the time because the official language of science was still Latin.

Merian also described many other details of the evolution and lifecycle of the insects she observed. She could, for example, show that each stage of the change from caterpillar to butterfly depended on a small number of plants for its nourishment. As a consequence the eggs were laid near these plants.

Her work places her among one of the first naturalists to have observed insects directly. This approach gave her much more insight into their lives and was contrary to the way that most scientists worked at the time.

The pursuit of her work in Suriname was an unusual endeavour, especially for a woman. In general, men travelled in the colonies to find insects, make collections and to work there, or to settle. Scientific expeditions at this period of time were almost totally unknown and the work of Merian raised many eyebrows. She succeeded, however, in discovering a whole range of previously unknown animals and plants in the interior of Surinam. Merian spent time studying and classifying her findings and described them in great detail. Her classification of butterflies and moths is still relevant today. She used Native American names to refer to the plants, which became used in Europe:

I created the first classification for all the insects which had chrysalises, the daytime butterflies and the nighttime moths. The second classification is that of the maggots, worms, flies and bees. I retained the indigenous names of the plants, because they were still in use in America by both the locals and the Indians”. Foreword of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium.

Her drawings of plants, snakes, spiders, iguanas and tropical beetles are still collected today by amateurs all over the world. The German word Vogelspinne — mygalomorphae, translated literally as bird spider — probably has its origins in an engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian. The engraving, created from sketches drawn in Surinam, shows a large spider who had just captured a bird. However to this day, no cases are known of a mygalomophae hunting a bird.

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Footsteps

Footsteps - image created by Maggie Baldry

Legal bit
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the authors.  Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in this work neither the author, contributors, employees or advisers are able to accept any legal liability for any consequential loss or damage, however caused, arising as a result of any actions taken on the basis of the information contained in this work. All third-party brands and trademarks belong to their respective owners.  Please note this notice is to protect the source research material. Please feel free to link and quote with references back to this page. Thank you. Copyright : Maggie Baldry

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2011 in History, Soft Footsteps

 

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