Caroline Herschel was a German astronomer who contributed significantly in the field of astronomy. Her most significant contributions in the field of astronomy are the discoveries of several comets and particularly, the discovery of the planet, Uranus. In an era where the world was a lot more patriarchal, she overcame her challenges and went on to earn a place in history. Herschel was struck with typhus at a very young age. She was always very fond of her telescopes. In her free time, Herschel occupied herself with gazing at the stars and looking into the sky with her favourite Newtonian telescope. Her parents had imposed restrictions on Herschel at a young age, but it seemed like she was destined to reach for the stars. She migrated to England with the help of her brother and thereafter didn’t look back. After pursuing music for a while, she diverted her attention towards astronomy, at the insistence of her brother. Her dedication towards the field grabbed the eyes of the British Royals, who offered her a stipend. Apart from detecting a number of astronomical objects throughout her career, she even published some of her works. ‘The Catalogue of Stars’ is one such publication which was published by the ‘Royal Astronomical Society’. She is hailed as the first woman to discover comets.
Childhood & Early Life
Caroline Herschel was born on 16 March 1750, to Anna Ilse Moritzen and Isaac Herschel. She was one of the ten children born to the couple, the eighth to be precise. While Isaac was a musician of Jewish descent, Anne was uneducated.
Caroline’s education was quite informal, as in she learned to read and write but didn’t receive a formal degree. She was just ten when she was diagnosed with the deadly Typhus disease, which imposed several challenges on the girl at the young age. The ailment curbed Caroline’s physical growth and her height was just a little more than four feet. The disease also made an impact on the girl’s eyesight.
Her mom was apparently a bit sceptical about educating her and thought pursuing household chores would be the right thing for Herschel to do. However, her father, a rational thinker, imparted lessons in violin to his beloved daughter her mother’s absence.
Caroline was forced to focus more on household chores by her folks. They prevented her from being independent and even ensured the girl doesn’t learn French, since knowing this language would lead to a lot of job opportunities.
Fortunately, her two brothers persuaded their mother to let Caroline Herschel to travel to England. William, one of her brothers, in particular, wanted his sister to collaborate with him in his musical endeavours.
In 1772, Caroline travelled to Bath, England and her stay there changed her outlook towards life to a large extent. She practiced singing and even learned to play quite a few instruments, like the Harpischord for instance.
She also performed on various stages, but surprisingly, on the insistence of her brother William, she turned towards Astronomy. The latter apparently needed Caroline’s assistance in managing his Astronomy catalogues and papers.
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William stopped pursuing music eventually and devoted his time completely towards the manufacture of telescope. He was assisted by Caroline Herschel in this endeavour.
One of Caroline Herschel’s early astronomic breakthroughs was the discovery of the planet Uranus, along with her brother William, back in 1781.
This feat helped the siblings earn a lot of fame, especially among the British citizens. William was even knighted for his great work and his sister was offered the designation of William’s assistant by the British royals. In addition, Herschel was offered an annual stipend of 50 pounds.
Caroline’s path-breaking finding came in 1783, when she discovered Andromeda and Cetus Nebulae. She eventually went on to reveal 14 more Nebulae, a discovery which took the astronomical circles by surprise.
Her brother William rewarded his beloved sister for her accomplishment and offered her a gadget called Newtonian Sweeper, which further helped in her astronomical endeavours.
It is widely believed that Herschel was one of the first few to discover comets, an interesting celestial phenomenon. During the period 1786-97, Caroline went on to discover seven more comets. The prominent among these was ‘Comet Encke’, which is said to revolve around the sun once in 3.3 years.
Apart from the discovery of Comets, Caroline Herschel is known for discovering 2500 Nebulae, which is one of the reasons behind her widespread fame. The legendary astronomer also revised ‘British Catalogue’, a compilation of English astronomer John Flamsteed’s findings.
Awards & Achievements
Caroline was felicitated with a gold medal, by the ‘Royal Astronomical Society’, in 1828.
In 1846, she was honoured with another gold medal, this time by the King of Prussia.
Personal Life & Legacy
Her brother William tied the knot in 1788 to a woman named Mary Pitt and the event worried Herschel to an extent. The astronomer wondered if her sister-in-law would accept her, but luckily Mary and Caroline hit it off really well and the trio stayed in the same house.
William passed away in 1822, after which a shattered Caroline relocated to her motherland, Germany. She did everything possible to help William’s son John Herschel, with his astronomical research.
Apparently, Caroline lent a catalogue of her findings of Nebulae to her nephew and taught him all she knew about astronomy. John Herschel eventually went on to join the league of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers in history.
Caroline remained unmarried all her life and was a spinster at the time of her death. She passed away on January 9, 1848, at the age of 97. She was laid to rest at Hanover, Germany, next to the graves of her parents.
In her honour, an asteroid, ‘Asteroid 281 Lucretia’, named after her second name and a crater on moon, ‘C.Herschel’ is named after her
Renowned American poet Adrienne Rich paid tribute to Herschel through her poem ‘Planetarium’, penned back in 1968.
’The Dinner Party’, an artwork with a feminist theme, intended to celebrate the accomplishments of great women from history, had mentioned Caroline Herschel.