Skip to main content

The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel - Emily Winterburn ****

Thankfully, with the attention now given to the history of women in the sciences, the subtitle of Emily Winterburn's book 'the lost heroine of astronomy' is not really accurate. Admittedly, thanks to the relative coverage given to less substantial contributors to science such as Ada Lovelace, some might underestimate Caroline Herschel's contribution. However, I've read several books on Herschel's work now, notably Claire Brock's The Comet Sweeper and Michael Hoskin's book on both William and Caroline, Discoverers of the Universe.

What Winterburn brings impressively is a feel for Caroline the person - although Winterburn is a historian of science, this is more a biography of the active part of a scientist's life rather than a scientific biography. Having read the story often from William Herschel's viewpoint, there's a feeling of watching one of those clever movies where you see the same situation from two individual's very different viewpoints. Here it is the incredibly productive Caroline's view of the world. As Winterburn makes clear, Caroline was not the first woman to be involved in science, nor even the first to get recognition as such by the scientific authorities - but she was the first to become visible in this way in the UK and her contribution, both in 'comet sweeping' and totally restructuring the catalogue of nebulae (as well as increasing its content significantly) was highly significant.

There's always a danger with a biography, especially of a 'forgotten figure' in history, that the account becomes worthy and dull. This isn't at all the case here. Winterburn has apparently been able to access a large quantity of primary material, and this is largely a very readable account. It's topped and tailed by relatively brief summaries of Caroline's life before and after her astronomical work, but the vast majority focuses on around 10 years when she was actively using telescopes, finding comets and nebulae and amassing an impressive catalogue.

Caroline comes across as someone who is far more interested in family and work than a social life. For a poor background, she was thrust with her brother into a middle class world on the fringes of Royal patronage and clearly wasn't always comfortable with the social requirements this brought. However, Winterburn portrays well Caroline's very slow acceptance of her own worth and gives plenty of context from the gradual improvement in women's independence to the influence the French Revolution was having on English life. What is very clear is that Caroline was far more than her brother's helper - though there is no doubt that he would not have achieved as much as he did without her.

My only issue with the book is that it does seem under-edited. All books contain the odd error, but there seemed slightly more than usual. For example, we are told that Venus, the brightest thing in the night sky after the Moon, has a lower apparent magnitude than the brighter stars and there's a reference to the University of Aberdeen, which didn't exist in the eighteenth century. The bigger aspect of the editing issue as a reader, though, was repetition. In the second half of the book particularly, some points are made repeatedly from chapter to chapter, sometimes with similar wording. In the worst instance, the repetition is in the same few lines:

 ‘He then set about promoting this eclipse as a public astronomical spectacle, using maps to show where to stand for the best view… to encourage people to go out and view this… he had maps printed showing exactly where to go to view it. ‘

This did make me pull back from what otherwise would have been a five star rating, but it's still a very useful and approachable insight into Caroline's work and its social and political context.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…