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Mathematical Treasure: Somerville’s Translation of Laplace’s Celestial Mechanics

Author(s): 
Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish aristocratic lady, self-taught mathematician, and theoretical astronomer. Somerville associated with the eminent mathematicians and scientists of her time. Well recognized for her mathematical ability, she was requested by the then active Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to translate Pierre-Simon de Laplace’s (1748-1827) monumental Traité de Mécanique Céleste, written in French and Latin, into English. Somerville labored on this task for four years and, upon completion of her work, requested John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the most eminent astronomers and scientists of the time, to proofread the finished translation. He found it outstanding and it was published in 1831 under the title Mechanism of the Heavens. The book was a great success, eventually going through ten editions. Mary Somerville won accolades for her work and was widely appreciated as an accomplished mathematician and scientist. By her example, Mary Somerville advanced the rights of women to study and work in mathematics and science, and yet, she was very much the Victorian woman, signing her book as “Mrs. Somerville.” In 1835 Mary Somerville was accepted as an honorary member into the Royal Astronomical Society.

The opening pages of Chapter IX illustrate some of the mathematics content Somerville translated.

The Special Collections staff at the Linderman Library of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is pleased to cooperate with the Mathematical Association of America to exhibit this and other items from the Library’s holdings in “Mathematical Treasures.” In particular, Convergence would like to thank Lois Fischer Black, Curator, Special Collections, and Ilhan Citak, Archives and Special Collections Librarian, for their kind assistance in helping to make this display possible. You may use these images in your classroom; all other uses require permission from the Special Collections staff, Linderman Library, Lehigh University.

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Somerville’s Translation of Laplace’s Celestial Mechanics," Loci (August 2014)

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