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

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…