Caroline Herschel- The Forgotten Stargazer
March 18, 2013
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it is hard to believe that in 2013 there are still those who think that women either don’t have an aptitude for science, or are simply not interested in science. Only recently, the head of an Ivy League university continued to perpetuate this myth. One of the reasons that I think this stereotype continues to be passed around is because most people are hard pressed to name many women scientists. They know the names of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking (even Bill Nye the Science Guy), but Marie Curie is one of the few names that people can come up with when asked about a female scientist. However, women scientists existed even before Curie’s time, and one of these forgotten women is Caroline Herschel.
When the name Herschel is mentioned, most automatically think of William Herschel. William Herschel was an innovator in astronomy who was known for some of the earliest large telescopes to scan the heavens. He was also the person who discovered Uranus, as well as several moons of Saturn. And he was one of the first to suspect that there might be a form of light that existed beyond what our eyes could see. This led to the discovery of infrared radiation. For all of these accomplishments, Herschel became a household name in the field. Unfortunately, most don't easily recall that he made most of these breakthroughs with the help of his younger sister Caroline Herschel, who also made many discoveries of her own.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was born into a world that expected all women to become wives and mothers. In fact, her own mother firmly believed this should be Caroline’s goal. It was several men in her life, first her father and then her beloved older brother William, who helped foster her own innate intelligence. Even though she was never schooled much in the field of mathematics, William trusted her to help when he began to turn from his music career to the study of the heavens. At first, Caroline would start out helping to document her brother’s observations as he looked through his huge telescopes. Later, however, she began her own observations that would change astronomy forever.
Caroline Herschel was responsible for the discovery of multiple comets, as well as the cataloguing of many nebulae. But one of her greatest contributions was the corrections and updates that she added to John Flamsteed’s famous catalog of the stars, Historia Coelestis Britannica. This was, at the time, the most complete catalog of all the stars and their positions that could be seen in the northern hemisphere. The book had been used by many astronomers over the years, but not only was it missing important data, it also contained inaccuracies. It was Caroline Herschel who corrected the mistakes and filled in the blanks to create the new volume that would be fundamental for astronomers in the coming years.
While Caroline was given her due by her contemporaries for her accomplishments, her name did not go down in the annals of history as much as Marie Curie. I have always been interested in astronomy, but I never heard her name until I encountered a biography of her. It made me wonder how many other female scientists (or philosophers, engineers, and mathematicians, for that matter) have been lost to history because their accomplishments were either not recognized by their male peers, or were not written and recorded by the predominantly male historians. How many more lost women of science are there?