Through her precise astronomical observations and calculations, Caroline Herschel helped expand our understanding not only of the solar system, but of the whole universe. So significant was her contribution to the field, it may come as a surprise to realize she never set out—or even chose—to be an astronomer.
When she escaped a life of domestic drudgery in her native Hanover (the burden of being the youngest daughter in a
large family) and moved to England at the age of 21, it was with the expectation of keeping house for her brother William and making a living as a singer in his professional musical productions. But as William became
increasingly drawn from music to astronomy, he pulled Caroline with him. Soon she became his indispensable assistant, sitting up at night observing, recording data, doing calculations, even spoon-feeding her brother while he
polished mirrors for the telescopes he crafted in his workshop! As Caroline’s understanding and expertise grew, so did her appetite for the work. With her own telescope she independently discovered eight comets, and eventually
assembled and calculated data for a Star Catalogue describing every known object in the night sky—a project of such
scope and detail that generations of astronomers based their work upon it.
Caroline Herschel was the first woman in Britain paid a salary for scientific work, the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and recipient of their Gold Medal in 1828 for her work on the Star Catalogue. Her patience, precision, and keen intellect were an inspiration to other astronomers, including another comet-hunter, the American Maria Mitchell. Above all, she was an example of someone who adapted to, and made the most of, the challenges and opportunities life presented to her.
About the author:
Laura Alary is a writer, reader, and all-round curious person. She has loved books since she was barely big enough to clamber up the steps to the bookmobile that rolled into her Halifax neighborhood once a week. At school, she made her own books out of manila paper, mucilage and crayons. The first story she can remember writing was about a little girl who kept spilling paint and having to figure out how to turn the messes into pictures (a good rule for life).
These days, Laura considers herself very lucky to work in a beautiful library and write her own books. Her latest is What Grew in Larry’s Garden (Kids Can Press, 2020), and she is anticipating the publication of two new picture book biographies about Maria Mitchell and Cecilia Payne. You can find Laura and her books online at WWW.LAURAALARY.CA (Twitter@LauraAlary1).