Why This Room is Special
Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) and On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834)
I continued my mathematical and other pursuits, but under great disadvantages; for, although my husband did not prevent me from studying, I met with no sympathy whatever from him, as he had a very low opinion of the capacity of my sex, and had neither knowledge of nor interest in science of any kind.
Born in Scotland in 1780, Mary Somerville defied her family’s lack of interest in her remarkable abilities and went on to produce some of the most widely-read educational books for the sciences in the early nineteenth century.
The two titles represented on the book spine in this room attend to astronomy and traditional physics. Mechanism of the Heavens was praised by astronomer Sir John Herschel and was adopted as a textbook for use by male undergraduates at Cambridge in 1837. On the Connection of the Physical Sciences was informed by Somerville’s exchanges with some of the leading scientists of the moment including Michael Faraday and Charles Lyell.
Somerville’s pioneering spirit was recognised in 1879 by the founders of Somerville Hall: one of the first women’s ‘societies’ at Oxford. The students of Somerville had to wait until 1920 to be granted the right to receive degrees from the University. Somerville’s legacy is also recognised by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929). In her lecture, Woolf echoes Somerville’s defiant attitude towards those who sought to prevent women from accessing education:
‘Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’