Humans have turned to the heavens with wonder since long before recorded history, yet as recently as 1750, astronomy was still a field very much in its infancy. Working tirelessly with her brother, William, German Astronomer Caroline Herschel brought a precise and methodical approach to one of science’s most exact disciplines. Through steady dedication to stargazing and recording of their observations, the siblings massively expanded humanity’s knowledge of the skies and the comets, stars and nebulae within them.
Caroline Herschel’s success, despite the primitive equipment available to her and her lack of any formal astronomy training is testament to her sheer devotion and strength of character. Her great efforts and her strong bond with her brother led them both to make important discoveries- fruits of one of history’s greatest minds- not convinced?
Check out Lizzie Henry’s profile of the lady herself below:
The Greatest Minds Profile Number 3:
Born: 16th March 1750
Died: 9th January 1848
1. Co-discovering (with her brother, William) over 2400 astronomical objects over twenty years,
2. Co-discovery (with her brother) of eight comets between 1786 and 1797,
3. Discovery of the Comet now known as Comet C/1786 P1 (Herschel) (See Ref 1 and 2 below).
4. The first woman officially recognized in a government position in the UK (as assistant to her brother, on the payroll of King George III),
5. Co-discovered fourteen nebulae and calculated the locations of hundreds more,
6. Began a catalogue of star clusters and nebular patches.
7. Compiled a supplemental catalogue to Flamsteed’s “Atlas”, which included 561 stars, as well as a comprehensive index to it.
1. The first woman ever to receive honorary membership into the Royal Society (in the UK),
2. The gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 (see reference 3 below),
3. Named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835.
4. Appointed a member of the Royal Irish Academy of Sciences in Dublin in 1838,
5. Awarded the gold medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1846,
6. A crater on the moon is named “C. Herschel” in her honour.
7. The periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which she discovered, bears her name.
8. The Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath, England is named after Caroline and William Herschel (See Reference 4).
Born in Germany as Karoline Lucretia Herschel on March 16, 1750, Herschel was one of the ten children of Anna Ilse Moritzen and Issak Herschel. She grew up in Hanover, the only girl among five surviving children of the military musician Isaak Herschel and his wife Anna Ilse Herschel. The family was very musical, and her older brother, William, eventually moved to England to work as a music teacher and organist. Against the wishes of her mother, who would have preferred her to be a seamstress, Caroline, like her brothers, received musical training and became a concert singer. At the age of 22, Caroline moved with her brother William to train as a singer. In England she sang as a soprano in a number of performances. However, in his mid-30s, William Herschel's interest in astronomy took off and, thereafter, everything else became a lower priority for him. Caroline worked as his assistant, perhaps somewhat reluctantly at first, helping him to polish mirrors while building his own telescope. However, it was not long before Caroline,too, became wholeheartedly devoted to astronomy.
In addition to running the household and her appearances as a singer, Caroline now devoted herself to astronomy; for example she helped Wilhelm produce reflecting telescopes. Her main duty consisted in grinding and polishing the mirrors – a task that required absolute accuracy. Besides such practical activities however, she occupied herself with astronomical theory. She mastered algebra and formulae for calculation and conversion as a basis for observing the stars and measuring astronomical distances. William discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, and was subsequently knighted and appointed court astronomer to King George III.
Between 1786 and 1797 Caroline too enjoyed success, when she co-discovered eight comets. She worked through entire nights with her brother observing the heavens, noting the positions of the stars as he called them to her from the other end of the giant telescope that they had built themselves. She evaluated the nocturnal notations and recalculated them, wrote treatises for the journal Philosophical Transactions, discovered fourteen nebulae, calculated hundreds more, and began a catalogue for star clusters and nebular patches. In addition she compiled a supplemental catalogue to Flamsteed’s Atlas which included 561 stars, as well as a comprehensive index to it. For this work she was paid the highest tribute by Gauss and Encke, among others. Nonetheless, she remained the (perhaps excessively) modest woman she had always been.
One notable observation came on 21st December 1788, when Caroline observed a comet that was seen later that night by her brother and, subsequently, by astronomers at the Greenwich and Paris Observatories. Orbits for the comet were calculated by other scientists in 1789 and in 1922, but it was not until the comet reappeared, in July 1939, that the object’s true path could be ascertained. American Astronomer Leland E. Cunningham linked the July 1939 comet reported by Roger Rigolett with that earlier discovered by Caroline Herschel. In 1974,the final piece of the puzzle fell into place, when US-based British Astronomer Brian G. Marsden used 75 known positions of the comet, from both its apparitions in 1788 and in 1939–40, factored in perturbations by planets and calculated the orbit period of the comet now known as Comet 35P/Herschel–Rigollet as 155 years.
In 1822, a few short weeks after her brother’s death, Caroline Herschel returned to her home-city of Hanover, which she had left as a young woman almost fifty years earlier. The world’s most important scientists sought her out in her simple house on Marktstraße and she continued her astronomical studies, to verify and confirm William's findings. However, her observations were hampered by the architecture in Hanover and, as she aged, her work was further hampered by her own physical limitations. Thus she spent most of her time there “working on a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel in his work” (source: Wikipedia).
Caroline Herschel was awarded numerous honors – for example in 1828 the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, of which she was named an honorary member in 1835. In 1838 the Royal Irish Academy of Sciences in Dublin appointed the 88-year-old Caroline Herschel to its number. And in 1846, at the age of 96, she was awarded, on behalf of the King of Prussia, the gold medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. None of the comets she discovered was named after her, but a crater of the moon bears the name “C. Herschel” after her; this is small crater approximately 13 and a half km wide on the western part of the moon’s Mare Imbrium.
Caroline Herschel died peacefully in Hanover on 9 January 1848. She is buried at 35 Marienstrasse in Hanover at the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, next to her parents and with a lock of William's hair. Her tombstone inscription reads, "The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens." With her brother, she discovered over 2400 astronomical objects over twenty years.
Her brother was the astronomer and composer, Frederick William Herschel ( 5th November 1738 – 25th August 1822),
Her nephew was the polymath Sir John Frederick William Herschel (7th March 1792 – 11th May 1871), who was best known for his contributions to mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, botany and early/ experimental photography.
Approximate Contemporaries in Various Fields:
Mary Sommerville, Science Writer & Polymath (26th December 1780 – 29th November 1872),
Alexander von Humboldt, Geographer, Naturalist (14th September 1769 – 6th May 1859)
Sir Joseph Banks, Botanist, (February 1743 –June 1820),
Sir Charles Darwin, Biologist (12th February 1809 – 19th April 1882),
Walt Whitman Author (May 31st 1819 – March 26th, 1892)
John Stuart Mill, Economist (20th May 1806 – 8th May 1873)
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (also Antoine Lavoisier), Chemist, (26th August 1743 – 8th May 1794)
Joseph Priestley, Chemist, (March 1733 – 6th February 1804)
Charles Babbage, Inventor, Computer Scientist, Engineer, (26th December 1791 – 18th October 1871)
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caroline herschel. This is a image collage by v.Neblik on behalf of the greatest minds ltd. it is made from components that are in the public domain image due to their age. the portrait of caroline herschel and hometown crest were taken from wikipedia, the telescope was from openclipart.org, the background and other components are original. Neither the greatest minds nor V.Neblik make any copyright claims on the public domain components to this image.
By Lizzie Henry