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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Happy Birthday, Caroline Herschel!

Caroline Herschel, astronomer, was born on this day, March 16, 1750 and lived to be 97. Here's a  Creative Commons licensed Victorian era lithograph of her and her brother William, who, like her, was a musician who became an astronomer. In his case, a massively famous astronomer whose name is better known even today than hers. For one thing, among his many achievemements he discovered the planet Uranus - the first time anyone had discovered a planet in centuries.  But over the course of her career, his sister was to discover a lot of comets. There's even a crater on the moon bashed for her.

You notice she's not doing any astronomy in this picture, she's handing him a nice cup of tea(or coffee or maybe chocolate) while he does astronomy? Well, she did follow him from Hanover to England to be his housekeeper and sing in his concerts(she was a fabulously gifted soprano), but still, how very Victorian! 
I wrote about her in my children's book, Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science(out of print but probably still available on ABEbooks or eBay). 

Because it was for children, I started off her chapter with her collecting horse dung for her work on a giant telescope. Kids love gross. 

Caroline seems to have been fairly fortunate in the men in her life - her father and brother. In the Wikipedia article I read to refresh my memory it says that her Mum didn't want her educated but her Dad, a musician, sneaked in some lessons while his wife was out. What it doesn't say in Wikipedia is that when she got interested in astronomy, her brother William gave her the maths lessons she needed to make a go of it. 

She was the first woman ever to be paid for her work in science and was eventually made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, along with Mary Somerville, best known as a mathematician and teacher of the world's first computer programmer Ada Byron Lovelace. 

For many years she worked with her brother. Eventually he got married and didn't need her housekeeping any more, which made her rather sad. But it also led, eventually, to her having an independent career as an astronomer. And she had a good relationship with her nephew John, who also became an astronomer and married a botanist! 

I'll let you look up all the awards and medals she won before passing away at the age of 97. If you get quickly to the Google page, the Google Doodle should still be up, otherwise just look up her name. It's there - and I have to say, it's a lot easier to find information about women scientists now than it was back in the 1990s, when I was researching my book. That's wonderful! 

It's also kind of nice to know that way back in Caroline Herschel's time a woman scientist could be recognised, as she was - especially considering how many in much more recent times have not been. We still, for example, hear all about Watson and Crick in the history of DNA, but not as often about Rosalind Franklin. 

Happy birthday, Caroline! I'm off to drink a toast.

Creative Commons image from Winecast

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