Caroline Herschel – 18th Century Astronomer

Caroline Herschel c. 1829 (source)

Caroline Herschel c. 1829 (source)

As a girl, Caroline Herschel’s expectations were limited, but she had a quick mind and the ability to learn. Although most of what Caroline learned would be to benefit and help her brother, she went on to become a brilliant astronomer in her own right, discovering nebulae, star clusters, and eight comets.

Caroline Herschel was born March 16, 1750 in Hanover (now in Germany.) She was the fifth of six children born to Isaac Herschel and Anna Moritzen. Her parents were industrious and hard-working, her mother a housewife and her father a gardener and musician. Her mother saw no need to educate a girl, but Caroline was able to learn the basics of reading and writing, and because of the family talent for music, her father insisted that she learn to play the violin.

Caroline suffered a couple of childhood illnesses that left their mark; smallpox when she was three left her with scars and a damaged left eye; typhus at the age of ten stunted her growth, leaving her with an adult height of 4′ 3″. Her mother showed her little affection and envisioned Caroline as her housekeeper. Her father reminded her frequently that she was unlikely to find a husband because she had no fortune or beauty. She was probably looking at a bleak future.

In 1767, Caroline’s father died and her favorite brother William, who had moved to England, suggested that she come live with him. William’s intention was to make his living as a musician and to study astronomy, and he wanted Caroline to come keep his house. At first her mother refused to give up the work that Caroline did for her, but she agreed when William promised to send her the money to get a maid to make up for Caroline’s absence. So in 1772 at the age of 22, Caroline returned with her brother to England.

Telescope made for Caroline by William in 1795 (Photo: Wikipedia user Geni, source)

Telescope made for Caroline by William in 1795 (Photo: Wikipedia user Geni, source)

Even though she still kept house, Caroline’s life was completely different with her brother. She studied math for the first time, so that she could keep his household accounts. William gave her voice lessons and she learned to play the harpsichord so that she could accompany him. Soon she became well-known for her singing and began to get engagements for solos, although she refused if William couldn’t be the conductor. William also insisted that she take lessons in dancing and how to conduct herself in society. She thought many of the people she met in society shallow, but the lessons would serve her well because she and William soon came to the attention of King George III for their work in astronomy.

William’s astronomy work began to take up more and more of his time. Displeased with the telescopes available he began to build his own and was soon selling them to others. Caroline and their brother Alexander ground by hand the mirrors needed for the telescopes, and Caroline did William’s calculations, carefully cataloging his observations in the night sky.

On March 13, 1781, William spotted what he thought was a new comet, but after careful observation realized that it was a planet. His discovery of the planet Uranus brought him to the attention of the King. The next year William was made the official astronomer of King George III and received a pension of £200. Caroline was no longer just a helper, but an apprentice and would soon be credited with her own discoveries. This also brought with it more visibility in society and with the royal family. William and Caroline were often invited to Windsor, and Caroline got to know the princesses Sophia and Amelia as she patiently answered their questions about the stars.

Caroline never wanted to outshine her brother, but in 1783 while he was away she discovered 3 nebulae. Then on August 1, 1786, she discovered her first comet. This discovery brought her to the attention of the scientific community and The King gave her a small salary for her work as William’s assistant. It was only £50, but she wrote in her diary that it was the first money she had ever received that she felt she could spend on whatever she wished.

Sir William Herschel c. 1805 by James Sharples (source)

Sir William Herschel c. 1805 by James Sharples (source)

Around this time William got married and Caroline began doing more work on her own. Between 1788 and 1797, she discovered seven more comets and began work on revising Flamsteed’s star catalog. She verified the information, made corrections, and added 560 stars that she and William had observed. She submitted this catalog to The Royal Society for publication. But her most impressive and recognized work was The Reduction and Arrangement in the Form of Catalogue, in Zones, of All the Star-Clusters and Nebula Observed by Sir William Herschel in His Sweeps. For this work, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal calling it “a work of immense labor” and “an extraordinary monument to the unextinguished ardor of a lady of seventy-five in the cause of abstract science.”

The medal from the Royal Astronomical Society was awarded to her in 1828, six years after William’s death and after she had returned to Hanover. She also received medals from the King of Denmark and the King of Prussia, and in 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society bestowed honorary membership on two women for the first time, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. The extract for the award stated 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.”

For Caroline, however, her crowning achievement probably came only a few months before she died. The work mentioned above was the basis for her nephew’s study of his fathers work. William’s vast undertaking, The Survey of the Heavens, was completed when his son Sir John Herschel completed and published the survey of the heavens in the southern hemisphere. She received a copy of Cape Observations just months before she died on January 9, 1848 at the age of 97.

Even in her death she was concerned for her brother’s fame. Her epitaph, which she composed, states in part “The eyes of her who is glorified were here below turned to the starry heavens. Her own discoveries of comets and her participation in the Immortal labors of her brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to future ages.” Working with her brother, she advanced the science of astronomy and the recognition of women in science.

Caroline Herschel at 92 (source)

Caroline Herschel at 92 (source)

Resources
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century
by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science

Mary Fairfax Somerville – Mathematics by Candlelight

Mary Fairfax Somerville, c. 1834, by Thomas Phillips

Mary Fairfax Somerville, c. 1834, by Thomas Phillips (source)

“I was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”  ~ Mary Fairfax Somerville

The 17th and 18th century women mathematicians and scientists that we’ve looked at so far have been accepted into intellectual circles. Their intelligence and works were recognized and in Italy they were even allowed to teach. They were accepted that is, once they got there. Maria Agnesi, Emilie du Chatelet, and Laura Bassi all had one advantage – parents, or at least fathers, that indulged their intellectual curiosity and gave them the education they craved. Mary Fairfax Somerville did not have this advantage.

As a young girl, Mary Fairfax, born in Jedburgh, Scotland on December 26, 1780, was by her own admission a “wild creature.” Her father, a Vice Admiral in the British Navy, was away from home for long periods of time and her mother was quite permissive. With the exception of learning to read the Bible, the catechism, and daily prayers, she received no academic lessons. She was taught “useful” skills, how to care for the garden, preserve fruit, tend the chickens and cows, tasks reserved for the women of the household. Apart from these chores, there were few demands made on her time, so she would roam the countryside and seashore near her home in Burntisland, Scotland observing sea creatures and birds, collecting things, and learning the names of the plants around her home. At night, the stars she could see from her window held equal fascination.

When she was about nine years old, this carefree existence came to an end when her father returned from a long voyage to learn that Mary’s reading skills were minimal and she couldn’t write. At least the basics were expected of young women, so Mary was sent to a school run by Miss Primrose. In spite of her intellectual curiosity, Mary didn’t fair well at the school where she was expected to prepare lessons laced into stiff stays and steel busks designed to improve her posture. The teaching techniques focused on memorization including pages from the dictionary and gave little room for curiosity or critical thinking.  After one year at the school, she returned home and continued her wandering existence, but at least she had increased reading skills that allowed her to enjoy a small number of books in their home. Mary’s only other formal education was a year spent in a local school where she learned to “write a good hand”, basic arithmetic, and the womanly arts of needlework, painting, music, etc.

Mary’s interest in mathematics was piqued by a couple of chance encounters. Once during a party she was paging through a women’s magazine and came across a puzzle. When she looked at the answer it had x’s and y’s in the solution. Curious, she asked a friend who told her that it was something called algebra, but she couldn’t tell her what it was. The second conversation that would set the stage for her life long interest was an overheard conversation between a painting instructor and a male student. The instructor told him that he should study Euclid’s The Elements about geometry to better understand perspective.

Now Mary knew the names of two things she wanted to study, algebra and geometry, but how could she get the required books? To do this she conspired with her brother’s tutor. His skills were limited, but he agreed to obtain books for her and demonstrate the first problems in The Elements. She was on her way! Each night after the rest of the household retired, Mary would study mathematics by candlelight. But then the candle supply started to diminish and it was noticed.

For many people during this time, keeping women away from intellectual pursuits wasn’t just a matter of propriety. Some people believed that women’s minds couldn’t handle it and it would drive them crazy, or that mental exertion would take away from their ability to have children. In essence, that they had a “delicate constitution” that had to be protected. In her recollections of childhood, Mary recalls her father saying, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a straight-jacket one of these days. There was X who went raving mad about the longitude.” So when her parents discovered that she was studying at night, the servants were instructed to take away her candles. However, at this point she had already progressed through the first six books of Euclid, so she depended on her memory and worked through the problems in her mind each night until she knew them thoroughly.

In 1804, Mary was married to a distant cousin, Samuel Greig. Although not interested himself, it seems that Greig tolerated Mary’s intellectual interests, but the marriage was short-lived. Greig died in 1807 leaving Mary with two boys and a small inheritance. She returned to her parent’s home, but her inheritance gave her an independence that allowed her to continue her studies. She began reading The Mathematical Repository, a journal which aimed at exposing the general public to some of the new developments in mathematics. Through the journal, she began a correspondence with William Wallace a professor at the University of Edinburgh. Wallace provided Mary with a list of important books on mathematics and science, and she began to accumulate a library.

Dr. William Somerville c. 1840 (source)

Dr. William Somerville c. 1840 (source)

Mary’s second marriage to another cousin, Dr. William Somerville, inspector of the Army Medical Board, was completely different. Dr. Somerville didn’t just tolerate Mary’s interests, he encouraged them. Together they raised a family, traveled, collected specimens, and associated with some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the day. They would remain together for the rest of their lives.

Mary’s first work was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and titled “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays.” Although she was not a member of the Society at the time (1826) and her paper had to be presented by her husband, it attracted the attention of Lord Brougham, of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. He commissioned her to write what would become probably her greatest and most well-known work, a translation of Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste.  The purpose of the Society of the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was to make new scientific discoveries accessible to the general public that might not have the educational background to read the original documents. As it turned out Mary had a gift for this type of writing.

Mary had studied Laplace’s work, but being largely self-taught and having doubts about her ability to do it justice, she extracted a promise from Lord Brougham and her husband that if it wasn’t sufficient it would be burned. She spent the next four to five years working on it and when it was complete it was much more than Lord Brougham needed. Her introduction alone met his needs and was published separately, but the entire work was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens and became a favorite among students at Cambridge. She had a gift of being able to communicate in clear, concise terms, complicated subjects, translating as she said “algebra into English.” Her later works include On the Connection of the Physical Sciences published in 1846, Physical Geography in 1848, and Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1860.

Mary Somerville continued writing for the rest of her long life. She died in Naples, Italy on November 28, 1872. Her legacy is one of excellently written scientific books that continued in use for many years, but also one of what a woman can do when she has a drive to do it. As she said herself it is indeed “unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Resources
Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville by Martha Somerville
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Notable Women in Mathematics edited by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.