Monday, September 14, 2020

Caroline Herschel: The first female comet-hunter

Herschel, Caroline Lucretia (16 March 1750 – 9 January 1848), astronomer, was born at Hanover, the eighth child and fourth daughter of Isaac Herschel (1707–1767) and his wife, Anna Ilse Moritzen.

The Herschels grew up in a musical family in Hanover, and there Caroline was trained to look after her brothers and ageing parents. Her father also encouraged his children to study music, Mathematics and French.

Closer to her father, Caroline recounted that one of her strongest childhood memories was of her father taking her outside on a frosty night and showing her the winter stars 'to make me acquainted with the most beautiful constellations, after we had been gazing at a comet which was then visible'.

Caroline's childhood was overshadowed by the defeat in 1757 of the Hanoverian army by the French in the Seven Years' War and the resulting occupation of Hanover. Her elder brother William, though in the same band as their father, was too young to be under oath, and so was free to flee to England. Caroline joined her brother, William in England in 1772, ostensibly to train as a singer and to accompany him in his concerts. This training was technical in nature, teaching her the mechanics of how to sing and make her voice carry, how to read music and speak English.

William and Caroline often discuss astronomy. Eventually her interest grew in that area and she gave up a promising career as a singer to concentrate on astronomy. Her brother soon found her efficient, meticulously talents essential to his work. She assisted him by his recording his observation astronomical catalogue.

Then in 1781 William discovered the planet Uranus and this gained him a Royal Pension from George III, with the requirement that they should give up music and move near to Windsor Castle. Once there, Caroline began training as an astronomer, learning skills she was expected to put to use almost immediately, acting as her brother’s astronomical assistant and scribe.William had built her a telescope expressly designed for the discovery of comets.

Caroline was to become famous as the discoverer, or co-discoverer, of no fewer than eight comets, four with the sweeper made in 1783, three with its successor, and the last, found in 1797, with the naked eye. However, her earliest sweeps, in the winter of 1782–3, yielded not comets but comet-like nebulae, to add to the hundred or so already known. Later in 1783 she was to discover the companion to the Andromeda nebula.

When William died in 1822, Caroline returned home to Germany and continued her astronomical work. She was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 and was made an honorary member of the Royal Society ten years later.
Caroline Herschel: The first female comet-hunter

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