Friday, August 18, 2017

The woman who minded the heavens and hunted comets (while also keeping house)

[Did a version of this piece – about one of my favourite literary and scientific heroines – for Mint Lounge]

Early one morning in August 1797, a shy, middle-aged woman named Caroline Herschel did something very uncharacteristic, saddling a horse and riding twenty-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 too – “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 in this arena: as 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 the overlooking of women’s contributions to science – got me thinking again about Herschel, whom I first met in Richard Holmes’s 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 major exception: Caroline Herschel is one of the most fascinating characters in a book filled with them.

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. And the chapters about William and Caroline Herschel are so compelling in part because much of the information comes from Caroline’s journals, which were personal and expansive in ways that her brother’s writings were not.

What emerges is a marvelous, often contradictory account of a woman who was self-sacrificing and compliant, but also had reserves of pride and ambition. And she was indefatigable. (You might get tired just reading about her daily routines.) 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, gradually improving her English during forays to the market – 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 the smaller telescopes and reflectors available to her 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 were achieved within a social bubble, and she must sometimes have felt underappreciated. 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, given her many sacrifices – resented the decline in her household status after William got married: The Age of Wonder mentions that she destroyed a decade’s worth of personal journals written during this period.

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’s capacious book.

A last, possibly whimsical observation. Since Caroline lived to a very old age, almost 98, her life-span stretched beyond the Romantic era covered by The Age of Wonder, and this has an unintentional consequence for the reader. The book describes the physical decline and deaths of all the other protagonists, but as the
narrative winds up, the octogenarian Caroline is very much around: still mentally agile, keeping late nights out of lifelong habit, counselling her nephew John Herschel (a major figure among the next generation of scientists), ruefully wishing she could “shake off some 30 years from my shoulders” to aid him in his work and travels.

And because there is no real closure when it comes to her, the mental picture we are left with is of a small, sprightly woman still 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-traveler – perhaps an infant riding a comet – were to tell her that two centuries later, the role of women in science was still being undermined. 

[An earlier post about some of my other favourite popular-science books is here]

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