A 4'3" Comet Blazing across the Firmament
March 26, 2017 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Caroline Herschel never expected to be an astronomer. Her oboeist father indulged her voracious mind, but her strict mother restricted her to housework. In 1772, she followed her beloved organist brother William to England to escape the drudgery and become a concert singer. Before long, she found herself assisting in his astronomical endeavors -- first providing his food, then polishing his mirrors, then doing all of his advanced math, despite having never been educated in the times tables as a girl. In 1781, William discovered Uranus, and in 1782 began earning a salary from George III. In 1783, Caroline made her first independent discovery (M110). In 1787, the British Crown began paying her £50/year for her work, making her the first woman scientist to ever earn a salary for scientific work.

In total, she discovered 8 comets, 14 deep sky objects, and 550+ stars; organized the list of non-stellar objects that became the New General Catalog; aided her brother in the discovery of Uranus; became one of the first two female members of the Royal Society in 1835; and published discoveries there. See The Comets of Caroline Herschel (PDF).

She was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia when she was 96. Despite a childhood bout of typhus that stunted her growth, she lived to be 98, continuing her observations of the heavens until the very end.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (14 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
In one of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, Jack Aubrey befriends Caroline Herschel during a stint on land. They spend a lot of time stargazing and discussing mathematics together, and he thoroughly enjoys and values her friendship. Oddly, it had never occurred to me to look into whether she was a real person, even though Patrick O'Brian sprinkles real people and real events very liberally through his books. I am very happy to learn she existed and was well worth Jack Aubrey's very high opinion of her intelligence and her work as an astronomer.
posted by Orlop at 8:41 PM on March 26, 2017 [14 favorites]

My favorite part is how she was self-taught as an adult in advanced algebra, trigonometry, and 3D geometry, so she could do calculations on the stars, but still carried a times table in her pocket because she never got a great grasp on them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:04 PM on March 26, 2017 [18 favorites]

Great post. Also worth noting that the poet Adrienne Rich wrote a knock-out gorgeous poem called "Planetarium" celebrating her.
posted by Rinku at 9:43 PM on March 26, 2017 [10 favorites]

Nice post.
posted by -t at 10:14 PM on March 26, 2017

This post is delightful and almost makes me unreasonably happy.

And, that Adrienne Rich poem is something else.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 11:59 PM on March 26, 2017

Neat- thank you for posting!
posted by charmedimsure at 12:05 AM on March 27, 2017

OK, definitely going to go to the Herschel Museum (this one - many places seem to name their astronomy museums after the Herschels) next time I've got free time. Been meaning to go for a while.
posted by ambrosen at 12:48 AM on March 27, 2017

I remember seeing one of her manuscript pages about her discovery, and the typo she made in haste and possibly excitement. It's here. I'm fascinated by such details that tell us something about the state of mind at the time of discovery.

Also it's quite interesting linguistically, for both
I see an object like a star with a burr all around
I see and object like a star with a burr all around
are well-formed sentences. The latter may even make sense (something Jefferson would say when drunk? :)
posted by runcifex at 12:50 AM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

There’s a very interesting account of the Herschels’ career (among many other things) in Richard Holmes’ book The Age of Wonder (‘How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’).

The practical difficulties & frustrations inherent in achieving what she did using the limited equipment at her disposal, from the vantage-point of a chilly & decidedly cloudy part of the world make her achievements all the more impressive.
posted by misteraitch at 1:01 AM on March 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

OK, definitely going to go to the Herschel Museum

Highly recommended! It is the actual house where she and her brother lived. Uranus was discovered in the backyard of this tiny house and there are loads of scientific artifacts and personal posessions. Highly overlooked by visitors to Bath.
posted by vacapinta at 2:10 AM on March 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation of the Herschel Museum in Bath! Bath has so many interesting things to see that this quiet little museum, a bit off the the main tourist track, often gets overlooked. I seem to remember that the opening hours were a bit restricted - okay, checking, it's only open in the afternoons on weekdays, with longer hours on weekends.
posted by Azara at 4:13 AM on March 27, 2017

a chilly & decidedly cloudy part of the world

There were times during their observations when her skirts froze to the ground. If anyone ever did it backwards and in heels...

Here's a solfeggio from her Music Book, probably written by her brother to help her practice and showcase her singing.
posted by Devonian at 5:27 AM on March 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

A great post, and thanks to Orlop and Rinku for the O'Brian and Rich connections!
posted by languagehat at 5:28 AM on March 27, 2017

In 1783, Caroline made her first independent discovery (M110).

Here is the APOD version of M110.
posted by jamjam at 9:44 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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