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The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel's…
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The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel's Astronomical Ambition

by Claire Brock

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Claire Brock’s biography of Caroline Herschel has a problem similar to the biography of the Marquise Du Châtelet reviewed a while back; Ms. Brock, an English professor, really doesn’t communicate enough about astronomy to explain Caroline Herschel’s accomplishments. Instead she falls back on fairly standard arguments – women in the 18th century were oppressed, were denied opportunity, didn’t get the credit they deserved, were forced to be dependent on men, etc. All these things are perfectly true, of course, and should cast additional luster on what Caroline Herschel achieved. Which was:

*Despite being denied an education and turned into a domestic servant by her mother (her father Isaac was supportive but too easy-going to argue with his wife) she taught herself to play the violin.

*Breaking free of Hannover and her now widowed mother’s household on the invitation of her musician brother William, she journeyed to Bath, England, and became an accomplished singer. (Her method for learning to sing seems strange, but was apparently common in the 18th century – she practiced with a gag in her mouth. I’ve seen pictures of that on the Internet, but never realized opera was involved).

*When her brother abandoned his musical career to become an astronomer, Caroline dutifully accompanied him and became his observing assistant, carefully noting positions dictated by William, keeping papers and star catalogs in order, and generally being “invaluable” (in William’s words).

*When not required by William, Caroline took up her own observing program, eventually discovering seven comets.


The problem here is Brock’s explanation of what was involved in 18th century telescopic astronomy is badly muddled. All of William Herschel’s telescopes were reflectors with what we would now call altazimuth mountings, and pretty crude ones at that. (Brock has a hopelessly confused description of the difference between and relative merits of the reflectors and refractors of the time).


Any celestial object observed with the rig had to have its coordinates converted to right ascension and declination (Brock refers to “night ascension” several times; I suspect a misunderstanding except sometimes it’s in direct quotes from one of the Herschel’s letters. Perhaps that’s what they called it then). I have no idea how this was done. Pictures of Herschel’s telescopes don’t seem to have any sort of indices or scales for measuring an object’s position; I can only assume they aren’t visible or have been removed. You can determine right ascension without scales by starting with an object of known position and timing how long it takes the target object to come into view (and there’s a hint it might have been done this way, since Caroline Herschel records consulting the clocks as one of her duties) but declination measurement requires some sort of scale. To get there with an altazimuth mounting you have to have the telescope’s position accurately surveyed (apparently Caroline helped with that too; Brock says she “learned to use rods to measure the ground” without explaining why), know the time of the observation as precisely as possibly, measure the object’s distance above the horizon (ideally, an artificial horizon) or from the zenith or from another object of known position, and do spherical trigonometry. Caroline Herschel was responsible for resolving these observations and making fair copies of the results – William Herschel sometimes called out object positions at the rate of six a minute. Her mathematics, beyond basic arithmetic, was entirely self-taught. This is vastly more impressive than her comet discoveries – which could have been made by anybody with reasonable perseverance.


Ironically, while Brock claims that modern histories have relegated Caroline Herschel to a footnote to her brother’s accomplishments, her contemporaries and near contemporaries were seemingly quite aware of what was involved. Francis Baily, Neville Maskelyne, John Dreyer, and Joseph de Lalande all praised Caroline Herschel’s abilities (de Lalande named his daughter “Caroline” in her honor; he’d named his son “Isaac” after Newton) as an observing assistant; unfortunately Brock only mentions this in passing and almost as if it were sort of a patronizing insult.


Good enough as a straightforward biography but not adequate as a description of 18th century astronomy, regardless of the astronomer’s gender. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 21, 2017 |
When I picked up this book, I hadn’t realised that Brock would start from the premise that Caroline Herschel was forced into astronomy by her brother, William, and would go on to argue instead that this was Caroline’s own choice. The concept of usefulness repeats itself throughout the text, hammering home the idea that Caroline decided, and wanted, to work with her brother as she desired to prove herself. I was expecting a history or biography, and while Brock does give details of Caroline’s life, such as her relationship with her overbearing mother, it was more like an academic essay justifying the author’s position that Caroline Herschel was her own woman. Given that I did not think otherwise, it felt like Brock was laying it on a bit thick. Brock uses feminist discourse to defend Caroline and her actions from the predominantly male views at the time. I have not read any texts that claim Caroline was simply a servant to William’s will, but I assume that these exist from Brock’s spirited defence. The majority of the other popular science books I have read were unapologetic and did not assume that their subject’s motivations and position will be, or have been, questioned. It was a strange starting point for me, but once I got used to the style and approach, the book provided some interesting insights into how science and astronomy operated at that time and how Caroline’s position was thought of by the rest of society, which were aspects that I hadn’t really thought about properly before. For example, Brock notes that Caroline provided inspiration to other women and they came to visit her specifically because she was a female scientist, which is something we would take for granted now. ( )
  Tselja | Feb 22, 2012 |
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At the beginning of August 1786, Caroline Herschel made the usual entries in her 'Book of Work Done'.

When she looked back on her life, Caroline Herschel found the period of her childhood brought back the most painful memories.
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"The Comet Sweeper is the story of Britain's first female professional scientist, Caroline Herschel - a true Enlightenment celebrity whose rediscovery is long overdue." "Such was Herschel's reputation that a congratulatory letter in 1790 from the director of the Paris Observatory was simply addressed to 'Mlle Caroline Herschel, Astronome Celebre, Slough'. Having escaped domestic servitude in Germany by teaching herself to sing and establishing a career in England, Herschel learned astronomy while helping her brother William, then royal astronomer." "Soon she was making discoveries in her own right, and she swept to international scientific and popular fame. She was awarded a salary by George III in 1787, becoming the first woman in Britain ever to make her living from science. But, as a woman in a male-dominated world, Herschel's success was achieved despite constant frustration of her ambitions. Assisting her brother had to take priority over her own work, and his marriage separated her from the instruments of her trade, stalling her career." "Drawing on original sources - including Herschel's diaries and her fiery letters - Claire Brock tells the story of a woman so determined to win independence and satisfy her ambition that she moved careers and countries while chasing success."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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