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Caroline Herschel: Assistant or Astronomer?

After a recent visit to the National Air and Space Museum's "Explore the Universe" exhibit, a local astronomy post-doc, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, wrote the following about one of the displays:magine my dismay when I got to the section about Caroline and William Herschel, a sister-brother team of a...

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After a recent visit to the National Air and Space Museum's " Explore the Universe" exhibit, a local astronomy post-doc, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, wrote the following about one of the displays:

magine my dismay when I got to the section about Caroline and William Herschel, a sister-brother team of astronomers, and saw their names attached to the following titles: William Herschel: The Complete Astronomer Caroline Herschel: William's Essential Assistant. ...



The paragraph describing Caroline goes on to begin, "A fine astronomer in her own right . . . " Well, if she was an astronomer, how come she doesn't get the same label as her brother? What kind of message does this send to the young girls and boys who will potentially be exposed to astronomy for the first time in this exhibit? Caroline Herschel is the first woman (of only three) mentioned in the exhibit, and it seems her claim to fame is having been in the employ of her genius brother.



I'm not suggesting that Caroline's contributions be exaggerated -- simply that astronomers should be labeled as such.


Since I've been somewhat obsessed with the Herschels recently, Caroline in particular, I started wondering whether NASM had got it wrong, whether they had underplayed Caroline's role in astronomy. And so I made my way to the museum to check it out.



"Explore the Universe" demonstrates how the science of observing the heavens has changed through technology, from Galileo's telescope to Hubble and beyond. The Herschels are in a display that includes a partial replica of William's 20-foot telescope—one of several he made in his lifetime—along with a few other artifacts. A musical piece of William's own composition—his Oboe Concerto in C Major—plays in the background interspersed with a conversation between William and Caroline. William can be heard at the eyepiece of his telescope, calling out observations to Caroline, who would have faithfully recorded them. Not only does it exemplify their professional relationship—observer and assistant—but the playful banter in which Caroline reprimands William to practice his English in case a member of the royal court should appear speaks to their fondness as brother and sister.



The description of Caroline reads:

A fine astronomer in her own right—she found eight comets—Caroline Herschel assisted her brother in his observations and telescope building. Margaret Herschel described Caroline's many roles:

"She learned enough of mathematics and of methods of calculation...to be able to commit to writing the results of his researches. She became his assistant in the workshop; she helped him to grind and polish his mirrors; she stood beside his telescope in the nights of mid-winter, to write down his observations, when the very ink was frozen in the bottle."


After William died, Caroline prepared a catalog of all the nebulae and star clusters he had observed. For this achievement, she received a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, a high honor that would not be granted to another woman for more than a century and a half.


Given the constraints of a museum display, this is a fair description of Caroline's contributions. And calling her "William's Essential Assistant" is necessary given the overall design of that display; the astronomer-assistant relationship needs to be established quickly (especially since many people won't bother to read all of the text) for the audio to make sense.



I agree with Prescod-Weinstein's observation that too often women in the history of science have been overlooked as assistants, but that is not the case with Caroline Herschel, who was recognized during her life and afterward for both her pivotal role in helping her brother and for her own discoveries. And if I have only one word to label her, I'll call her "astronomer."



There is a tendency among some, in their efforts toward equality, to overinflate the role of the earliest female scientists. However, that does a disservice to these women and their struggles; their stories help to explain why they are worthy of being remembered and why women are not always equal in the world of science.



Caroline Herschel's mother brought her up to be the household drudge, barely educated and fit for little more than maid's work. Her brother William rescued her, taking her to England to be his housekeeper and assist his musical career (at the time, he was a conductor and musician in Bath). Caroline became a successful singer at the same time she managed the household and assisted in William's hobbies of stargazing and telescope making. And when William became a professional astronomer, entering the king's service, Caroline followed, giving up her own musical career and devoting her life to astronomy as well. Without her, William may never have been as great an astronomer.



That amazing story, however, from Cinderella to professional astronomer—Caroline was the first women to receive a salary for stargazing, for assisting William—doesn't fit easily into a museum display, particularly one focused on instrumentation. Caroline Herschel was both assistant and astronomer, as NASM's display indicates, and to leave out either role is to ignore much of her spectacular journey.
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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