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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.



Review by Brian Clegg


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