berlinMany congratulations to Brigitte Stenhouse (Mathematics, 2012)! In addition to receiving a First in her Mathematics Degree, Brigitte was awarded a Gibbs prize for her fourth-year dissertation, The Mathematics of Mary Somerville.  Brigitte will receive a prize of £100 for having one of the two best dissertations submitted for final honour school in mathematics and its joint schools.

S: Can you tell us a bit more about your dissertation?

B: After discovering the manuscript of On The Theory of Differences in the Bodleian Library, I was intrigued as to why this very mathematical work was left unpublished in favour of Somerville’s works on popular science. The Mathematics of Mary Somerville investigates the expectations of women in science in the 19th century, in the context of Somerville’s financial dependence on the work she published, in an attempt to explain why Somerville never pursued mathematics further than Mechanism of the Heavens, even though she described it as the subject she found “most congenial”.

What was your favourite part of your research?

The part of my research I enjoyed most was finally finding one explanation for why we have the current ‘leaky pipe’ situation in science and mathematics. Science and mathematics are quite clearly male dominated fields, and while there are many initiatives to encourage women to pursue careers in such areas, I had never really understood how this situation came to arise in the first place. Reading about how women, and people of colour, and people of a low socio-economic background were systematically and maliciously excluded from science was incredibly eye opening. Most especially, I realised that not even mathematics is impartial, and that gender, ethnicity and wealth were important attributes to have in order to receive recognition for a contribution to mathematics. It made me question why we value the mathematics we do, why we learn the mathematics we do in school and university, and why it is all named after Cauchy.

It was also incredibly exciting reading Somerville’s handwritten work, letters and diary in the Weston Library.

Why did you decide to focus on Mary Somerville in particular?

I was having a chat with the Somerville College Librarian, Anne Manuel, and mentioned I wanted to write my final year dissertation on Women in Maths, but I was struggling to pick a specific topic/person. Anne suggested Mary Somerville, and her work Mechanism of the Heavens, and as soon as I began reading Patterson’s biography of Somerville I knew this was a topic I wanted to pursue.


Brigitte’s thesis received high praise from Prof. Ursula Martin of the Department of Computer Science and the Mathematical Institute: “This is a fine essay on Mary Somerville, arguing convincingly that she was an “untapped mathematical resource”, held back by nineteenth century expectations of women. Somerville has been much written about, in biographies and scholarly articles, and yet Brigitte Stenhouse has found something fresh and different to say in a clear, articulate, sophisticated and scholarly way.”

Brigitte hopes to pursue a PhD in 2017 and meanwhile, we are very lucky to have her as a new addition of our Development Office. Alongside this, she is continuing her researches on Mary Somerville, and in particular transcribing one of her unpublished manuscripts, under the direction of Dr Chris Hollings of Oxford maths.

Further reading?

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