Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) the first professional female astronomer, made some amazing contributions to the field of astronomy. But, surprisingly, not many people know about her.
Caroline’s journey to becoming an astronomer was not an easy one. As a child, she got sick with typhus and was left with facial scars and stunted growth. Her family treated her like a servant and didn’t think she would ever get married. They didn’t even let her pursue her love for learning and forced her to do household chores. Eventually, she managed to escape her family and joined her older brother William Herschel in Bath.
At first, Caroline wasn’t all that interested in astronomy. It was only when her brother got really involved that she started to develop a curiousity. She followed her brother’s lead in various things, like music and astronomy, but eventually found her true passion in studying the stars.
Back in those days, astronomers were discovering new things and mapping out the heavens. William became famous for discovering Uranus in 1781, although he initially thought it was just a comet.
Caroline started off as William’s assistant, doing tasks like polishing telescope mirrors and helping with cataloguing. But eventually, she started making her own observations.
In 1782, Caroline began recording the positions of new objects in her own logbook. And guess what? She discovered several comets and nebulae! On 1st August 1782, she became the first woman to spot a comet through a telescope. Over the next 11 years, she discovered seven more comets.
Now, back then, people only really gave credit to those who directly observed something. So, Caroline only got recognition for the comets she personally spotted. Her other contributions, like organising and recording her brother’s observations, were credited to him. King George III acknowledged her discoveries and her work by giving her a salary. That made her the first professional female astronomer!
Later on, Caroline reorganised the catalogue she had made with William in a more efficient way, based on how astronomers actually observed the night sky. This updated catalogue became the basis for the New General Catalogue, which astronomers still use today to organise stars.
Nowadays, things have changed a bit in astronomy. Most astronomers don’t spend their time literally looking through telescopes anymore. A lot of important discoveries are made using space and large earth based telescopes. But astronomers still rely on recording and organising data from these telescopes. Catalogues, like the ones Caroline created, are important for making sense of all that data.
Even with all her amazing contributions, Caroline Herschel is still not very well-known today. One reason for this is that her brother got all the credit for their joint catalogue. In today’s astronomy, both Caroline and William would be recognised for their contributions.
Caroline Herschel is just one example of a female astronomer who didn’t get the recognition she deserved. And this problem isn’t just limited to the 18th century. It still happens today. Take Jocelyn Bell Burnell, for example. She discovered the first radio pulsar but was left out when her PhD advisor got the Nobel Prize in 1974.
Astronomy has come a long way since the 18th century, but it’s important for astronomers to think about how they can give credit where it’s due. Recognising the contributions of astronomers like Caroline Herschel is a small step in the right direction. and her work by giving her a salary.