[Ada Lovelace Day 2011] Caroline Herschel

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day - a day when bloggers around the world aim to raise awareness of women in science, technology and mathematics. One day, I would really like to be able to interview and profile my mother for this (she was a research chemist before circumstances forced her to change career) but so far I have not managed to make her comfortable with the idea of being written about. My subject this year, therefore, is Caroline Herschel.

In astronomy, the name Herschel is commonly associated with Sir Friedrich Wilhelm (or William), a German-born astronomer who lived and worked in Britain for much of his life. William made his own telescopes which are described by experts as very advanced, as well as discovering Uranus and a number of binary starts and deep sky objects. What is less well-known is that William's younger sister, Karoline Lucretia (Caroline), was both his assistant and a successful and accomplished astronomer in her own right.

Caroline was born in 1750 in Hannover. After her growth was stunted as a result of a bout of typhus at the age of ten, Caroline's family gave up hopes of marriage for her. She was expected to remain at home as a house servant. Upon the death of their father, however, Caroline was able to follow her brother William to England in 1772. At their house at 19, New King Street in Bath (now a museum to the Herschels), Caroline began helping her brother in cataloging his discoveries and also proved skillful at setting up and maintaining telescopes.

Tutored by her brother, she began to understand astronomy and make her own observations from about 1782. She made a number of independent discoveries, including eight comets (with unquestioned priority of discovery on five of them), 14 nebulae, and M110 (NGC 205), the second companion of the Andromeda galaxy. She also confirmed a number of her brother's discoveries. In 1787, Caroline became the first woman to be granted a salary (of £50 annually, by George III) for scientific work.

Caroline's work on documenting astronomical discoveries, both by simplifying, re-organising and extending existing catalogues and by compiling her own catalogue of nebulae, was a significant contribution to astronomy in its own right. After her brother's death in 1822, she returned to Germany where she continued this work.

In 1828, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded Caroline its Gold Medal - no other woman would receive this until Vera Rubin in 1996. In 1835, she was elected an honourary member of the Royal Astronomical Society along with Mary Somerville. Unsurprisingly, Mary and Caroline were the first female honourary members of the Society. In 1846, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.

Comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet which Caroline discovered is named after her. So is the asteroid 281 Lucretia and the C. Herschel crater on the Moon.

Caroline died peacefully in January 1848, aged 97. She left a legacy as an extraordinary woman and a pioneer astronomer.

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This page contains a single entry by Milena Popova published on October 8, 2011 9:05 PM.

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