Early Modern Times – a star was born

Early Modern Times - a star was born

Dear readers,

This recent Guardian article outlines potential NASA missions to send probes to Uranus, the seventh planet from our sun. Uranus lies on its side and is the coldest planet orbiting the sun (despite not being the farthest): these and other unusual aspects render it invaluable for scientists studying the formation of the solar system. Uranus, the article notes, was discovered in 1781 by the astronomer William Herschel, who was living in Bath. Since August 26, 2022 will mark 200 years since his death, a commemorative stone is being placed on the exact spot where he sighted Uranus. The accompanying exhibition to this anniversary will feature his observation book which includes his notes on Uranus, as well as a star catalogue compiled by his sister Caroline (1750-1848), pictured above. Let us contemplate the life of Caroline Herschel, whose star burned as brightly as her brother’s.

In this 2014 article, Herschel biographer Michael Hoskins describes the long and eventful life of Caroline Herschel. The Herschel family came from the German state of Hanover, from which the Georgian dynasty in Britain originated. Her father was a bandsman in the Hanoverian guard, and prepared his children for musical professions. This included Caroline, though her father generally neglected her in favour of her siblings. At the age of 22, Caroline joined family members who moved to Bath, England, where she trained as a singer. During the nocturnal journey to Bath, William introduced his sister to observable constellations in the heavens while he was teaching himself about telescopes. The brother, and later his sister, were becoming starstruck.

While William devoted spare time from his duties as organist and choral director to astronomy, Caroline was occupied with both choral and solo performances. After William discovered Uranus, he was appointed as court astronomer in Windsor. He enticed his sister to engage in astronomical observations using a rudimentary telescope especially built for her. She was initially lonely and uninterested, but began sighting nebulae: though they had been previously discovered, William was amazed that Caroline had observed them through her simple telescope. Caroline and William were now star-crossed siblings.

Caroline ran William’s household while assisting with observations and acting as his amanuensis. William embarked on a marriage with a rich widow; with his accrued wealth, he offered to pay Caroline for her astronomical work. She refused, and instead had William petition the king directly for a salary, which was accepted: she thus became the first female professional astronomer. Initially, she was bitter about her sister-in-law since she lived in the cottage where the Herschel siblings observed the heavens, and so was largely excluded from his household except as an occasional guest. Such animosity from this astronomer threatened to erupt into star wars.

In the late 1780s and into the 1790s, Caroline’s observations turned from nebulae to comets. She was acquiring a formidable reputation with the royal family and fellow astronomers. In 1795, Caroline began revising and correcting the British Catalogue of stars, which was published two years later by the Royal Society. She was now a shooting star in her own right.

Within weeks of completing the catalogue, Caroline sought to live with William and his wife instead of the cottage. Assisting William in this way involved moving from one residence to another, and so she did not have the time to make further significant observations. William died in 1822 at the age of 83. Caroline, now 71, contemplated acting as assistant to William’s astronomer-son John, but there was no place for his aunt in England. She returned to Hanover while assisting John from abroad by revising catalogues of nebulae, in 1823-25. Her work earned a Gold Medal from what became the Royal Astronomical Society. Caroline turned nebulous work into a stellar success.

Caroline was bestowed with high honours, but lacked employment and struggled with family troubles in Hanover over the remaining two decades of her life. Looking back over her distinguished career, she bemoaned ‘the mortifications and disappointments which have attended me throughout a long life.’ She further described herself before her death as ‘a poor solitary old maid.’ Even though she was a pioneering and accomplished astronomer, her blazing star was eventually sucked into a black hole of despair.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern star-raving mad Studies Program

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