This Month in Astronomical History: August 2022
Michael E. Marotta
Austin Astronomical Society
Each month as part of this series from the AAS Historical Astronomy Division (HAD), an important discovery or memorable event in the history of astronomy will be highlighted. This month's author, Michael E. Marotta of the Austin Astronomical Society, writes about the historiography of Caroline Herschel. Interested in writing a short (500-word) column? Instructions along with previous history columns are available on the HAD web page.
Caroline Herschel’s August Historiography
In early August 1772, Caroline Herschel’s brother, William, came back home to Hanover in order to bring her to England. The English servants not being up to German standards, her father, brother, and uncles needed a manager for their home, and Caroline’s first formal education in England was in bookkeeping. She arrived in England on 24 August and took up residence in Bath on 28 August. William had taken up astronomy as a hobby, teaching himself both that science and the necessary mathematics. He began grinding and polishing mirrors to construct his own telescope. Caroline and her nephew, George, joined him in the enterprise. William’s discovery of the planet Uranus in March 1781 set the course of their lives.
On 28 August 1782, Caroline Herschel started a record book to track comets.1 She recorded her first original discovery of a comet four years later,2 on 1 August 1786, and seven more comet discoveries followed. Over the years, she also reported on her observations of nebulae, and over a dozen are credited to her.3 Among other pursuits, she identified 560 stars that had been recorded by Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed without proper data between 1689 and 1719.4 In 1828, in recognition of her achievements, the Royal Astronomical Society honored her with a gold medal.5 In 1835, she was inducted as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.6
It was a time of changes spurred by the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Steam, direct consequences of the Enlightenment of the previous generation that was launched by liberal intellectuals and industrialists such as Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, and Matthew Boulton. The announcement of Caroline Herschel’s gold medal clearly stated the radical shift in social norms that were accepted by the new intellectuals:
“Miss Caroline Herschel elected an honorary member of the Society”
— Your Council has no small pleasure in recommending that the names of two ladies, distinguished in different walks of astronomy, be placed on the list of honorary members. On the propriety of such a step, in an astronomical point of view, there can be but one voice: and your Council is of opinion that the time is gone by when either feeling or prejudice, by whichever name it may be proper to call it, should be allowed to interfere with the payment of a well-earned tribute of respect. Your Council has hitherto felt, that whatever might be its own sentiment on the subject, or however able and willing it might be to defend such a measure, it had no right to place the name of a lady in a position the propriety of which might be contested, though upon what it might consider narrow grounds and false principles. But your Council has no fear that such a difference could now take place between any men whose opinion would avail to guide that of society at large; and, abandoning compliment on the one hand and false delicacy on the other, submits, that while the tests of astronomical merit should in no case be applied to the works of a woman less severely than to those of a man, the sex of the former should no longer be an obstacle to her receiving any acknowledgment which might be held due to the latter. And your Council therefore recommends this meeting to add to the list of honorary members the names of Miss Caroline Herschel and Mrs. Somerville, of whose astronomical knowledge, and of the utility of the ends to which it has been applied, it is not necessary to recount the proofs.6
While easily accepted as righting the wrongs of the past, special pleading for women qua women transgresses three boundaries: otherizing, exotifying, and objectifying, ultimately denying access to the social spaces assigned to men and perpetuating the culture of victimization. See, for example, “The Actions of a Well-Trained Puppy Dog: Caroline Herschel’s Modest and Useful Life,” by Emily Winterburn in The Scientific Legacy of William Herschel, Cunningham, Clifford, ed., (2018, Springer International Publishing). In his review of The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy by Emily Winterburn, (2017, Stroud, History Press), for the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage (Vol 21. No 1, p 94-95), Clifford J. Cunningham pointed out that far from being lost, Caroline Herschel was always well known. The Harvard ADS Database lists over 750 citations when searching for full text and over 90 listings via abstracts.
- Olson, Roberta J. M.; Pasachoff, Jay M. (2012). "The Comets of Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), Sleuth of the Skies at Slough." Culture and Cosmos. 16 (1–2): 9.
- Herschel, Caroline. (1786). “An Account of a new Comet. In a Letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden, M.D., Sec. R.S.,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1787, Vol. 77 (1787), pp. 1-3.
- Caroline Herschel's Deep Sky Objects. Messier.SEDS.org/xtra/similar/cher.html (Accessed 16 August 2022)
- Baily, F. (1827) “Remarks on the Astronomical Observations of Flamsteed," Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society of London, 8 June 1827, No. 5
- (n.a) (1828). [“Comments of Mr. South, one of the Vice Presidents”]. Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, January 1828, Vol. 1, p.62.
- “Report of the Council of the Society to the Fifteenth Annual General Meeting, held this day,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 3, No. 12. 13 February 1835, p.91.