An ambitious EC-funded research initiative on epigenetics advancing towards systems biology 41

Shining star of astronomy

Name: Caroline Herschel
Nationality: German
Lived: 1750-1848
Fields: Astronomy
Claim to fame: First woman to receive full recognition as an astronomer in modern Europe

Torn between careers in music and in astronomy, Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) chose the latter and devoted her life to surveying the night sky. Both alone and with her brother William, Caroline made major discoveries, bringing her fame, awards and a paid government appointment – a first for a woman in England.

A musical family

Caroline’s father, Isaac Herschel, a military musician from Hanover (now in Germany), encouraged all of his six surviving children to study mathematics and music. His wife, Anna Ilse, had other ideas for their two daughters and wanted Caroline to become a seamstress and to look after the family home. Despite contracting typhus at the age of ten, which permanently stunted her growth, Caroline managed to combine her musical studies with carrying out her domestic chores.
Five years after her father’s death in 1767, the opportunity to escape household drudgery came with an invitation from her elder brother Friedrich Wilhelm (known as William in England) to join him in Bath, where he was installed as an organist and conductor. Although nominally there as his housekeeper, Caroline began to appear in her brother’s concerts as a soloist and she soon became first singer, receiving offers to perform in other cities. Had she not become fascinated by her brother’s hobby of astronomy, it is probable that Caroline would have gone on to an impressive musical career.

Surveying the skies

Alongside his successes in the music profession, William Herschel was fascinated by the observation of the night sky and produced refl ecting telescopes to allow him to see deep into the solar system. Caroline began to help him in this work, grinding and polishing the mirrors, a task requiring absolute accuracy. At the same time, she set about studying astronomical theory, mastering the algebra and formulae required for calculation and conversion as a basis for observing the stars and measuring astronomical distances.

Royal recognition

In 1781, William discovered the planet Uranus, crediting Caroline for her help. That same year, he was appointed ‘The King’s Astronomer’ at the royal court in Windsor. Caroline had the choice to continue her singing career or to go with her brother as his scientific assistant. She chose to go to Windsor, where she worked with William on the ‘night shift’, noting the positions of the stars as he called them out to her from the other end of the giant telescope they had built together. Caroline spent the daytime evaluating the nocturnal notes and recalculating them, before starting on a catalogue of star clusters and nebular patches. When she had time, Caroline worked on her own astronomical research. In 1783, she found three new nebulae (hazy clouds where stars form), and between 1786 and 1797 discovered eight comets, including one which now bears her name – 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. In recognition of her efforts, Caroline was given a salary of 50 pounds, making her the first woman in England with a paid government appointment.

A catalogue of success

In 1788, William married a wealthy widow, Mary Pitt, with whom he had one child, John. At first, Caroline was cool towards the newly-weds, moving out of her brother’s home, but she later warmed to her sister-in-law and became very close to her nephew, who would himself become a prominent astronomer and mathematician.
William’s marriage meant he spent less time in the observatory, but Caroline continued to devote herself to astronomical study. Her work included the updating and reorganisation of a catalogue of stars compiled by John Flamsteed earlier in the 18th century. Her revised directory was published by the Royal Society in 1798. In later life, Caroline also collaborated with her nephew on a catalogue of nebulae.
When William died in 1822, Caroline returned, almost immediately, to Hanover. Here she worked on cataloguing every discovery that she and her brother had made and was visited by numerous venerable scientists, including the great German astronomer, Carl Friedrich Gauss. Caroline remained in the German city until her own death, at the impressive age of 97.

Scientific achievements

Caroline Herschel’s place in history is as the first woman in modern Europe to receive full recognition in the field of astronomy. Her achievements included the discovery of comets and nebulae, and she is credited with helping her brother William to identify Uranus as a planet. Caroline’s activities in cataloguing the features of the night sky left a lasting legacy for anyone interested in the subject.
Her remarkable work brought her numerous accolades, both during her life and posthumously. In 1828, she was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and, seven years later, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville were made the first female members of the Society. Herschel was also appointed a member of the Royal Irish Academy of Sciences and, on her 96th birthday, the King of Prussia awarded her the gold medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences.

Even after her death, Caroline was remembered with the naming of astronomical features in her honour. An asteroid discovered in 1889 was given the name 281 Lucretia, after Herschel’s middle name, and the lunar crater C. Herschel was named in her honour in 1935.