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Somerville, science and wikipedia
By William Skelton (engraver); Charles Reuben Ryley (artist) (The Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

From Martin Poulter, Bodleian Libraries Wikimedian in Residence.

In the early 19th century, Mary Somerville was a celebrity scientist. One of her works was the best-selling science book of the time, until overtaken by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She published on astronomy, biology, atomic theory, and physical geography, at a time when scientific publications by women were rare. She tutored the computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, and introduced Lovelace to Charles Babbage.

Somerville’s name lives on, not least in the Oxford college named in her honour, yet not many people today know of her achievements. One reason is that it is hard to find her works. Her publications have been digitised, but the digitisation process only created images – rather than text, which is easy to find, search within and quote.

On 12 October, a group brought together by University of Oxford IT Services and the Bodleian Libraries started to change that. Working together on Wikisource, a sister-project of Wikipedia, we published a definitive transcription of a Mary Somerville paper from 1826. Being totally open access, the paper incidentally now meets modern funders’ requirements for scientific research outputs.

We also began that day a transcription of Somerville’s Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanisms of the Heavens; a book described by the astronomer John Herschel as ‘by far the best condensed view of the Newtonian philosophy which has yet appeared’. The transcription was finished this month, and it and other texts are available through Somerville’s Wikisource profile.

This event was just one of a larger programme celebrating the bicentenary of Ada Lovelace. They involved Oxford staff, interested public and experienced Wikipedians, a couple of whom participated remotely. We were lucky to have two excellent guest speakers in Prof Ursula Martin and Prof Sylvia McLain. Each event improved a different aspect of open knowledge about women’s achievements in science and related fields.



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The Wikimedia projects are special: they are written and curated by thousands of volunteers. They are also supported by voluntary donations, through Wikimedia UK, the Wikimedia Foundation and other international chapters.

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