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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…

Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…