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Mary, Queen of Scottish banknotes

23 Feb 2016

Mary Somerville, the Scottish mathematician and science writer, will become the first woman other than a member of the royal family to appear on a Scottish banknote. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has announced that Somerville’s portrait will appear on its new £10 banknotes to be printed in 2017. She was selected following a public vote, beating competition from electromagnetism pioneer James Clerk Maxwell and the engineer Thomas Telford. In this podcast, Physics World reporter James Dacey explores the life and legacy of this Scottish polymath, who died in 1872 a few weeks shy of her 92nd birthday

To learn about Somerville’s academic achievements and personal life, Dacey visits the University of Oxford’s Somerville College. Founded in 1879, it was originally a women-only institution and is named after Somerville, who achieved international acclaim during her lifetime. Famous alumni include chemistry Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, and the only female prime ministers of the UK and India to date: Margaret Thatcher and Indira Ghandi. Today, the college accepts both men and women but maintains its reputation for being one of the more open and progressive of Oxford’s colleges. Dacey meets Somerville’s current principal Alice Prochaska, a historian by training, who describes Somerville’s formative years and how her influence lives on at the college today.

Prochaska describes how Somerville first encountered mathematics from an unlikely source – an algebra puzzle in a woman’s magazine. Without the support of her parents – who thought maths could turn a female mind to mush – Somerville showed a combination of genius and sheer determination to teach herself Euclidian geometry by candlelight. Under the encouragement of her second husband, William Somerville, she developed a flair for interpreting some of the leading mathematics of her day and communicating this to a wider audience via her accessible writing. One of her best received publications was her book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, originally published in 1834 and hailed by many of the period’s leading thinkers, including Charles Darwin. To learn about the influence of Somerville’s work and how she became a fixture in Europe’s intellectual circles, Dacey also meets with science historian Allan Chapman.

In the second half of the podcast, Prochaska talks about some of the challenges that women in science still face today, and discusses some of the initiatives in place at Oxford to encourage diversity. If you would like to find out more about diversity issues in physics, make sure you don’t miss the March issue of Physics World, a special edition on this topic.

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