By Helen De Cruz
When I first arrived in Somerville College, Oxford, in September 2011, I found myself incredulously staring at the women's portraits, gazing calmly and confidently at me in the dining hall and throughout the college buildings. I was so used to all male portraits and busts in lecturing halls and common rooms in Leuven, and in practically every other academic venue. Central in the dining hall hangs a painting of Mary Somerville (1770-1872), the scientist and science popularizer after whom the college is named (this picture shows me when I was a senior common room fellow with Mary Somerville's portrait in the background).
Somerville published several original experiments on sunlight and magnetism in the Royal Society's Philosophical transactions. She was also the first to suggest in, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1842), that anomalies in Uranus' orbit could be explained by the presence of another planet, "possibly [the orbit of Uranus] may be subject to disturbances from some unseen planet revolving around the sun beyond the present boundaries of our system." (a hypothesis that was later confirmed with the discovery of Neptune).
I'd like to focus here not on Somerville's many scientific accomplishments, but on her work as a science popularizer. Comparisons are hard to make, given the changing nature of media, but Somerville was a famous science communicator, at least of the renown of Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Today, most science communicators are male - a recent poll for the most influential ones listed 11 men and 3 women. A list of top science popularizers of all time has only one woman, Mary Somerville. When the driving force behind the popular facebook page I fucking love science (pictured, together with two male science communicators, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson) turned out to be a young woman (Elise Andrew), commenters wrote things like, “Dude, you’re a chick? Wtf.” “Wait… you’re a chick? And you’re hot?! lol.", which prompted Andrew's response "EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I’m a woman! Is this really 2013?” And it is 2015 meanwhile, nothing much has changed. So it is all the more amazing to see Mary Somerville's rise to fame as a science communicator in the mid 19th century, when prejudices against women and women's intelligence were even more outspoken.