(A slightly belated second contribution to Women’s History Month, but hey – we don’t need to be bound by a particular month, do we?)
My favourite series of books is the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian – the ‘Aubreyad’ as aficionados like to call it. It charts the career of Captain Jack Aubrey in the Royal Navy in the early years of the 19th century. Aubrey is of course fictional, but the very real woman I want to talk about today makes a couple of cameo appearances in the series. Well, she never actually appears as a character, but she is referred to several times. So for starters, I will leave it to Captain Aubrey to introduce her:
‘Tell me, who is the Miss Herschel of whom you spoke with such warm approbation?’ [asks Aubrey’s friend Stephen Maturin]
‘Ah, now, that is another case altogether […]. There is a woman you can talk to as one rational being to another. Ask her the measure of an arc whose cosine is nought, and instantly she replies pi upon two: it is all there, in her head. She is sister to the great Mr Herschel.’
‘Just so. He honoured me with some most judicious remarks on refraction when I addressed the Royal Society, and that is how I came to know her. She had already read my paper on Jovian moons, was more than civil about it, and suggested a quicker way of working my heliocentric longitudes. I go to see her every time she comes down to Newman’s observatory, which is pretty often, and we sit there either sweeping for comets all night or talking about instruments. She and her brother must have made some hundreds in their time. She understands telescopes from clew to earring, and it was she who showed me how to figure a speculum, and where to get my superfine Pomeranian sludge. And it is not mere theory: I have seen her walking round and round a post in Newman’s stable-yard for a good three hours without a break, putting the last touches to a six-inch mirror – it will never do to take your hand from the surface at that stage, you know – taking snuff from a saucer every hundred paces. An admirable woman; you would love her, Stephen. And she sings, too – hits the note plumb in the middle, as pure as the Carlotta.’
(from The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian)
So: who was Miss Herschel?
Caroline Herschel shortly before her death at 97 years of age
Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750 (on 16th March – happy late birthday Caroline!). She had several brothers and sisters, one of whom, Wilhelm (or William) moved to Britain in 1757, where Caroline joined him in 1772. Although both Caroline and William became famous as astronomers, they both had early careers in music. William had been an oboist in the Hanover Military Band, but he also played other instruments. For a while he was the first violin in Charles Avison’s orchestra in Newcastle, and then he had jobs as an organist, first in Halifax, then at the Octagon Chapel in Bath. Not only that, but William Herschel was also a composer, and you can still hear his music played sometimes on the more adventurous classical music stations (worth checking out in my opinion, as is the music of Charles Avison, by the way). When Caroline joined him in Bath, she trained as a singer and performed as a soloist in a variety of concerts which her brother conducted. However, she refused to perform with any other conductor, and as William’s interest in music waned, her career declined as well.
William’s new passion was astronomy, and at first Caroline went along with it simply to support her brother in his endeavours. Soon however, she became interested herself. No doubt those lessons in arithmetic, which she had taken alongside singing, came in handy now.
In 1781, William discovered the planet Uranus – he called it ‘Georgium sidus’ after the king George III. The king was interested and pleased, appointed Herschel as ‘the king’s astronomer’, granted him a pension and asked him to move closer to Windsor. William gave up music, concentrated on astronomy full time and moved house according to the king’s wishes, and Caroline came with him. Working mainly as her brother’s assistant, she acquired more and more knowledge in astronomy herself and took to observing the night sky by herself – ‘sweeping’ it with the telescope.
In 1787 Caroline made a discovery of her own – a comet. This made quite a splash at the time: after all, this was the first ‘lady’s comet’. It was indeed very unusual for a woman to make scientific discoveries like that. Most women at the time didn’t get the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed. William Herschel probably valued his sister most as his assistant in astronomy and as manager of his household, but at the same time he didn’t stop her learning from him or using that knowledge in her own right. It is interesting to note, though, that Caroline made her discovery (and subsequent discoveries) at a time when her brother was not at home. She also took care to announce her discoveries as quickly as she could to influential friends (such as the Astronomer Royal Neville Maskelyne), so that no one could take the credit away from her.
Caroline Herschel’s drawing of her comet observation
Caroline wrote a paper on her comet, which became the first paper by a woman to be read at the Royal Society, and one of the first papers by a woman to be published in a scientific journal. Sadly, in spite of her accomplishments, she could not be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society – they didn’t let women in until 1945!
Caroline went on to discover several more comets, one of which bears her name: 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She also discovered a nebula, Messier 110 (or NGC 205). And she made more important contributions to astronomy. One was the Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, a revised version of John Flamsteed’s catalogue, which had contained numerous inconsistencies and errors. Caroline’s catalogue was published by the Royal Society in 1798. An interesting point (to me at least) is the fact that William had realised that work on the Flamsteed catalogue needed to be done to make it properly usable, but, as the Wikipedia article puts it, he ‘was reluctant to devote time to it at the expense of his more interesting astronomical activities’. In other words, he couldn’t be bothered with something so boring as checking, cross-referencing and indexing, so he passed that task on to Caroline. She was already used to recording and organising her brother’s observations, and had drawn up her own catalogue, so she was well suited to the task. This own catalogue I just mentioned is something she came up with because she found working with Flamsteed’s catalogue difficult when recording William’s observations. Flamsteed had sorted his catalogue by constellation, and she found it tricky to find in it what particular star William was using as a reference point to the nebulae he was observing. She therefore drew up a new catalogue, which sorted the stars by distance from the Pole Star (or to be more precise, by polar distance, the angular distance of a celestial object on its meridian measured from the celestial pole). This catalogue became the New General Catalogue, which is still used today (hence the number NGC 205 of the nebula referred to above).
This type of work is always perceived as unglamourous and not very sexy, but I say hurrah for cataloguing and indexing. Where would we be without it? Nerd Power! (as my sister likes to say)
Caroline’s achievements were recognised and rewarded in her lifetime. In 1787 the royal court started to pay her a salary – the first woman to be paid for her scientific work. In 1828 she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and was named an Honorary Member of the same society in 1835.
There has been some debate about how to judge Caroline Herschel’s accomplishments. In the past she has often been seen as nothing but her brother’s assistant – his ‘helpmeet’ as the old-fashioned word goes. More recently, and particularly following the efforts of feminist historians keen to reassess potentially overlooked women of the past, she has been characterised as an astronomer in her own right. So who is right?
I haven’t delved deeply into this debate, nor have I studied Caroline Herschel’s life in great detail, just enough to write this post. But here is what I think: if Caroline hadn’t been a ‘proper’ astronomer, she couldn’t have done what she in fact did. Her discoveries are not in question, but to make them she had to be able not only to use the equipment (remember that William wasn’t around) and to make sense of what she observed. She was also able to describe her observations in scientific terms – again, I don’t think anybody questions that she wrote her articles herself. And even when she was helping her brother, she used her scientific knowledge to do so. She didn’t simply write down what he dictated, but organised it, edited it and extrapolated from it. Even the ‘boring’ tasks of cataloguing and indexing would have been beyond her if she hadn’t been an astronomer. I think you will agree that to call her that is amply justified. As to how she ranks in importance compared to others in her field – well, that’s a debate I don’t even want to get into. All I want to say is that she deserves to be recognised and remembered. At the very least, I hope that my readers will agree with Captain Aubrey’s judgment:
“An admirable woman.”