Wednesday’s Google Doodle celebrates Caroline Herschel, an astronomer who cataloged the heavens, discovered eight comets, and was the first female astronomer on the English king’s payroll.
This famed astronomer actually started her career as a singer. She grew up in a musical family in Germany, as the eighth of ten children, until her older brother William called her away to Bath, England, in 1772. There, William played music and Caroline sang for royals who visited Bath’s hot springs on vacation.
While in England, William and Caroline became interested in astronomy. William earned fame by identifying a new planet—and caught King George III’s attention by saying that he would name it after him. (Astronomers who thought that all planets should be named after ancient gods put up a fight, and we now know the Georgian planet by the Greek name “Uranus.”)
The king was so pleased that he put William on his royal payroll. With the funding to work full-time as an astronomer, he and Caroline moved about a mile or two from Windsor Castle.
Charting the Sky
At their new home near Windsor, Caroline first began to study the sky with a little telescope that her brother had made her. Even with her tiny telescope, she could spot faint clouds of gas called nebulae.
Nebulae had not yet been systematically mapped, and her observations suggested “that there were large numbers of nebulae to be found,” says Michael Hoskin, author of The Herschel Partnership: As viewed by Caroline. And so Caroline and her brother set out to chart them.
At night, William would watch the sky through his telescope. Whenever he spotted something, he would call it out to Caroline, and she would record the observation. Later, she published their findings—and together, they cataloged about 2,500 nebulae and star clusters.
Hunting the Comets
When William married, Caroline moved out of their house. Her brother offered to pay her a salary out of his pocket to continue their work, but she insisted that the king should pay her as an astronomer—and he did. This made her the first salaried female astronomer of the king, though her salary was only a quarter of her brother’s.
Living on her own and making 50 pounds a year “allowed her to observe in her own right,” says Hoskin. The newly independent astronomer made a name for herself by discovering eight comets—which, in the 18th century, were extremely popular.
“The male astronomers of Europe,” says Hoskin, “were intrigued by this diminutive little woman, who was such a good comet-hunter.”
Though her comet-hunting was more publically sensational than her nebula-charting, it was her meticulous work with her brother William—and later, his son John—that earned her a gold medal and honorary membership in the Royal Astronomical Society (women couldn’t become full members until 1916).
That’s because Caroline, her brother, and her nephew were the first to systematically identify phenomena outside of the solar system. Their findings, says Hoskin, were the basis for the New General Catalogue—a reference list of nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies that is still in use today.
Herschel also has something on King George III. He didn’t get to have his name immortalized in space, but Caroline did. You can find her on the moon.
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