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

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…