Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel
Credit: care of Royal Astronomical Society

Occupation: Astronomer

Year born: 1750

Research Areas: Comets, Nebulae, Star Clusters

 

"August 1st — I have counted 100 nebulae to-day; and this evening I saw an object which, I believe, to-morrow night will prove to be a comet."

Source: Caroline Lucretia Herschel, E. A. Youmans (1876) Popular Science Monthly, 9

 

Early Life

Caroline was born in Hanover, Germany. Her father had been an army musician, but had to retire due to ill health before Caroline was born. Caroline herself had typhus when she was 10 years old. The illness stunted her growth at 4 foot 3 inches and left her with vision loss in one eye. Caroline's mother thought she should find work as a house servant when she was older. She learned to read and write, but she did not attend school. However, her father sometimes tutored her or included her in the lessons he gave to her brothers.

Career Highlights

When Caroline was 22, she moved to England to live with her older brother, William. He worked as a music teacher but had become interested in astronomy. He taught Caroline maths, so she could help him with his work. Caroline polished mirrors for his telescopes and kept records of all his observations. In 1781, the siblings discovered the giant planet, Uranus. Caroline also helped William to remove errors from a star catalogue created by the first UK Astronomer Royal. Caroline added 560 stars to the catalogue and produced a new catalogue of nearly 2,500 nebulae

William encouraged Caroline to make her own observations. When she was 33, he gave her a telescope to search for comets. He had built the telescope himself. Just over 15 years later, she had discovered 8 comets. She also found an open star cluster (now known as NGC 2360), and 14 new nebulae. One of those nebulae is now known to be the dwarf galaxy, M110. 

Legacy

Aged 78, Caroline was the first woman to be given a Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society. This was for her work on the nebulae catalogue. On her 96th birthday, the King of Prussia awarded her a Gold Medal for Science. An asteroid, star clusters, and a satellite have all been named after Caroline. 

Other Interests

Like many in her family, Caroline enjoyed music and for some years had a career as a singer.