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In Memory of Caroline Herschel


By Kristy Dyer

June 2000

In honor of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Caroline Herschel
(March 16, 1750), Kristy Dyer, a Ph.D. candidate in the Physics
Department at North Carolina State University and previous contributor
to STATUS, has composed a short biography of this notable
woman astronomer. We thank Professor Fran Bagenal of the
University of Colorado for contributing material for this biography.

ALTHOUGH Caroline Herschel was born into a musical family, her mother felt that her only role was
as a domestic servant and blocked all attempts at her attending school. At age 22 her favorite brother
William “bought” her freedom by offering to pay for a maid to take her place. She then moved to
England and started crash courses in English, deportment, singing and dancing, in addition to
taking over the household duties. Her goal was to be self-supporting and, indeed, within a year
she was in demand to sing solo oratorios. At the same time, astronomy was taking up more
and more of her brother's spare time. In 1782 William was appointed Royal Astronomer, and
this ended Caroline's singing career: “I have been throughout annoyed and hindered in my
endeavour at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a
creditable livelihood.”


William started a series of “Little Lessons for Lina:” algebra, geometry and spherical
trigonometry. Since he belittled her memory abilities as “sand in which everything could be
inscribed with ease, but as easily effaced,” she took constant and detailed notes, later made
detailed recordings of his observations, and applied extraordinary perseverance and high
standards of accuracy to the catalogues she compiled. With a small telescope she found 14
new nebulae for the catalog and discovered five comets in 10 years, although she noted
that she could really only observe when William was out of town since she was at his constant
beck and call when he was working!


In 1787 she was appointed assistant to her brother with a salary of 50 pounds a year:“… the first money I
ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking.” At
William's request she spent 20 months revising the Flamsteed catalog of 2,935 stars. “I found the indispensable
necessity of having this index recur so forcibly,” William Herschel said,“that I recommend it to
my sister to undertake the arduous task.” Caroline corrected errors and added 561 previously
unobserved stars to the catalog, which was then published by the Royal Astronomical
Society in 1798.


William died in 1822 and Caroline, not expecting to long survive her brother, moved
back to Hanover. She turned her room into an office with a writing desk and bookshelf and
there she made a complete catalog of all of William Herschel's nebulae and clusters, and in
1825 mailed it to her nephew, John Herschel.“I learned fully to appreciate the skill, diligence
and accuracy which that indefatigable lady brought to bear on a task which only the most
boundless devotion could have induced her to undertake, and enabled her to accomplish,” John
noted. He used it extensively in his work but delayed publishing any of it until 1864, in order
to include his own catalog.


Caroline Herschel's comets are listed at http://www.ozemail.com.au/~asnsw/articles/
comether.htm


Caroline Herschel's deep sky objects are listed at http://www.seds.org/messier/xtra/
similar/cher.html

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