Research

Stargazing

Last week, Megan posted about birthday parties. We’re about to celebrate my oldest’s, and having it a local observatory, the Kopernik Space and Education Center.

Did you know there was an important woman astronomer during the Regency? Caroline Herschel was born in Germany, in 1750. She accompanied her brother, William Herschel, to England, to serve as his housekeeper and also his assistant, and continued to study the stars until her death in 1848.

I found this letter from Caroline to her sister and thought I’d share.

William is away, and I am minding the heavens. I have discovered eight new comets and three nebulae never before seen by man, and I am preparing an index to Flamsteed’s observations, together with a catalogue of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue, plus a list of errata in that publication.

William says I have a way with numbers, so I handle all the necessary reductions and calculations. I also plan every night’s observation schedule, for he says my intuition helps me turn the telescope to discover star cluster after star cluster.

I have helped him polish the mirrors and lenses of our new telesope. It is the largest in existence. Can you imagine the thrill of turning it to some new corner of the heavens to see something never before seen from earth? I actually like that he is busy with the Royal Society and his club, for when I finish my other work I can spend all night sweeping the heavens.

Sometimes when I am alone in the dark, and the universe reveals yet another secret, I say the names of my long lost sisters, forgotten in the books that record our science:

Aganice of Thessaly,
Hyptia,
Hildegard,
Catherina Hevelius,
Maria Agnesi,

–as if the stars themselves could remember. Did you know that Hildegard proposed a heliocentric universe 300 years before Copernicus? That she wrote of universal gravitation 500 years before Newton? But who would listen to her? She was just a nun, a woman.

What is our age, if that age was dark? As for my name, it will also be forgotten, but I am not accused of being a sorceress, like Aganice, and the Christians do not threaten to drag me to church, to murder me, like they did Hyptia of Alexandria, the eloquent young woman who devised the instruments used to accurately measure the position and motion of heavenly bodies.

However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them. Your name, like mine, is a song.

Write soon
–Caroline

Doesn’t she sound like someone we’d like to meet? I would love to tell her that in our day, there are little girls who think it’s cool to celebrate a birthday at an observatory. I think it would make her smile.

Elena
LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, Best Regency Romance
www.elenagreene.com

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Cara King
16 years ago

Did you know there’s a Herschel museum in Bath? I haven’t been to it, but I’ve always meant to go.

Cara

Ramya
16 years ago

Thank you for the letter, Elena. It is unfortunate that not many people have heard of Caroline Herschel. I had heard of William Herschel though (famous for his discovery of Uranus). Apparently, William Herschel was residing at 19 New King Street, Bath when he discovered Uranus. He is also known to have coined the word ‘asteroid’, discovered IR radiation and the satellites of Saturn and Uranus. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, a comet, an asteroid and a crater on the moon are named after Caroline Herschel. (Source: Wikipedia) Pretty cool!

Ramya-who-wishes-she-owned-a-telescope

Lois
16 years ago

Ooh, can I go?? LOL See, this subject, is near and dear and all that stuff to me. Half of my books are Romances. THe other half are astronomy/astrophysics/physics and the like. It’s my major. Love it. So yep, I knew about her. . . You go girl!! LOL 🙂

Lois. . . who still loves Einstein the best. 😉

Megan Frampton
16 years ago

Elena:

Thanks for finding this!

The heroine from my book, Titania, is named after one of Uranus’s moons discovered by Herschel.

I think it’s cool to have a birthday party at an observatory, too.

Todd
16 years ago

I’ve been to the Herschel Museum, and it’s pretty interesting, though the collection is small. It is comforting to note that Caroline Herschel has very definitely not been forgotten; while she is not as famous as her brother (and how many people have discovered new planets in the solar system?), she is still a pioneer, both in astronomy and as a woman in science.

Another (somewhat later) female scientist from this era, whose life is very interesting and inspiring, is Mary Somerville. She left behind a book of memoirs (published by her daughter), and has been the subject of two or three biographies. She was primarily a mathematician; but she also worked in astronomy and physics (as a theorist), and wrote several popular books on science.

There is still a long way to go, but at least nowadays it is becoming normal for a woman to seek a career in the sciences. Or at least, almost as normal as it is for anyone to seek a career in the sciences. 🙂

Todd-who-is-the-picture-of-normality

Elena Greene
16 years ago

I must go to that museum sometime! And thanks for the tip about Mary Somerville, Todd. I have a fascination with scientific women in history.

The party, by the way, was a big hit. Even though the sky was overcast so there was no post-party viewing, the kids got a great astronomy show from the Kopernik educator. He even made a comet using dry ice and ammonia and “flew” it around the room. On the way home I was told that this was “the best birthday party ever”.

Elena 🙂

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