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The woman who minded the heavens

The Angela Saini's book on gender roles reminds us of Caroline Herschel, a housekeeper-scientist

Caroline Herschel. Photo: Alamy
Caroline Herschel. Photo: Alamy

Early one morning in August 1797, a shy middle-aged woman named Caroline Herschel did something uncharacteristic: She saddled a horse and rode 20-odd miles from Slough to share information with the Astronomer Royal in London. She had discovered a new comet, her eighth. Later, she wrote to the president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, apologizing for not having visited him: “I thought a woman who knows so little of the world ought not to aim at such an honour; but go home, where she ought to be, as soon as possible."

Herschel was probably combining humility with knowingness. Regardless of how much she knew of the world, the scientific world was getting to know her well, her fame having transcended her original role: housekeeper and dutiful assistant to her astronomer brother William. By 1797, her work had been chronicled in journals and she had even appeared in a mildly scatological cartoon, “smelling out" a comet depicted as a flatulent child soaring across the sky.

The publication of Angela Saini’s new book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the subsequent discussion about overlooking women’s contributions to science—got me thinking again about Herschel, whom I first met in Richard Holmes’ The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science. This superb biography of a scientific epoch is about the work of many great men, including Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy—with one exception. Caroline Herschel is one of the most fascinating characters in the book.

I say “character" advisedly. The Age Of Wonder isn’t a dry academic work. As a colourful narrative history dealing with 200-year-old lives (and inner lives), it involves the weaving together of different source materials and a degree of conjecture. The chapters about William and Caroline are compelling in part because much of the information comes from her journals.

What emerges is a marvellous, often contradictory account of a woman who was self-sacrificing and compliant, but also had reserves of pride and ambition. And she was indefatigable. She moved from Germany to Bath to live with William, under the pretext of pursuing a singing career, but really to be his apprentice. If she had stayed content with this, no one could have faulted her. It was a demanding, more than full-time job: Apart from running the house—and negotiating the business of being a foreigner in an insular British town—she aided William in arduous tasks such as marathon lens-polishing sessions as he constructed his giant telescopes.

Remarkably, she then made the time to pursue a parallel astronomical career. While William made big discoveries like a new planet (soon to be called Uranus), she used smaller telescopes and reflectors for “comet-hunting", an ostensibly lesser pursuit but one that would provide vital information about bodies that came from beyond the known solar system.

From a modern feminist perspective, Caroline’s story might not always seem triumphant. She was a product of her time, her bursts of self-expression achieved within a social bubble, and she must sometimes have felt under-appreciated. In one of her more self-effacing (or bitter?) moments, she wrote, “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done." And she—perhaps justifiably—resented the decline in her household status after William got married: The book mentions that she destroyed a decade’s worth of journals written during this time.

Despite all this, she cracked a glass ceiling, getting the first-ever royal stipend given to a woman scientist in Britain, becoming the first honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and setting benchmarks for what women might achieve in a field they had previously not been welcomed into. No wonder she blazes like a meteor across the pages of Holmes’ capacious book.

The mental picture we are left with is of a small, sprightly woman on the roof of a house, peering through a 40-foot telescope—“minding the heavens", as she eloquently put it in one of her diaries—while also keeping an eye on the many things to be done on terra firma. One can imagine her tut-tutting if a passing time-traveller were to tell her that two centuries later, the role of women in science was still being undermined.

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