'Caroline Herschel's legacy is undoubtedly lasting'

Astronomer Sherry Suyu from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics on comet-hunter Caroline Herschel, the first salaried female astronomer

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Sherry Suyu believes that young female scientists can overcome obstacles if they're driven by a passion for science.
Sherry Suyu believes that young female scientists can overcome obstacles if they're driven by a passion for science.

She has a comet named after her – comet 35P / Herschel-Rigollet – but her mother had envisioned a life for her as the household help of the family, instructing the young Caroline, whose growth was stunted due to contracting typhus fever as a child, in domestic activities such as sewing and embroidery. Caroline Herschel escaped this domestic drudgery, when, at 22, she followed her favourite brother, Friedrich Wilhelm, who was 12 years her senior, to England. There she originally trained as a singer. But she never embarked on a professional musical career as the Herschel household more or more began to be in the grip of one passion alone: astronomy, and Caroline began assisting her brother in his astronomical observations and in the construction of powerful new telescopes.

After Wilhelm discovered the new planet Uranus on March 13, 1781, he was offered the position of royal court astronomer; and Caroline, as part of the Herschel research duo, was offered fixed salary of £ 50 annually for her work – in effect, making her the first female professional astronomer. At the time she had evolved into an independent stargazer of her own. Between 1786 and 1797, she discovered eight comets, including the Encke comet, which has the shortest orbital period of all known comets within our solar system. In addition to discovering fourteen nebulae, she compiled a catalogue for star clusters and nebulae, as well as an Index to Flamsteed's observations, which included 561 stars. She was the first woman to be honored with the golden medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828) and the first to receive the golden medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences (1846).

Ms Suyu, what particularly fascinates you about the field of astronomy? What made you become an astronomer?  

I think what fascinates me most about astronomy is peering into the deep space and discovering the unknown. You know, just finding out what's out there. Beautiful images of outer space always fill me with awe – and a smile. My own interest in astronomy and astrophysics started in childhood; in school I enjoyed maths and physics. I am from Taiwan originally, and my family moved to Canada when I was 8. The local high school I went to was very good at encouraging students to develop their interests. That set me off in the direction towards astrophysics from early on.

What fascinates you about Caroline Herschel? Are there any aspects of her life and work that you strike you as particularly remarkable?

What I find striking about Caroline Herschel is that she encountered many obstacles on her path to becoming an accomplished astronomer, yet she persevered. She had quite a difficult childhood. As a child she suffered from smallpox, which left her scarred and later also from typhus, so her growth was stunted. In her family, she was expected to do household duties and remain within the domestic sphere. It was only her older brother William who pulled her out of this environment, when in 1772, he asked her to join him in England where he worked as a musician.

Initially, Caroline trained as a singer but she more and more began to collaborate with William on his astronomical work, for example, in his endeavour to build larger and better reflecting telescopes. The grinding and polishing of mirrors were very gruelling work, and a session could even go on for some 16 hours, nonstop. She also helped by recording his observations of the night sky. After a while, she made her own “sky-sweeping” surveys independently and discovered nebulae and comets.

In 1796, she was given an annual salary of £50 by King George III for her role as assistant to William, making her the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science.

What were the prevailing gender roles during Caroline Herschel's time? How did she manage to persevere and be successful despite the many restrictions on women at the time?

Women didn't have the same opportunities as men at the time, with the exception maybe of a few women from privileged backgrounds who were fortunate enough to receive an education. Caroline showed impressive determination to break free from this stifling environment; when she went to join William in England, at the age of 22, she learnt many new things – a new language, since she spoke no English on her arrival, a new profession, when training as a singer, and of course a new discipline with astronomy and telescope making. So she dealt with quite a remarkable set of new challenges, really.

How important are Caroline Herschel's contributions to cosmology?  

Caroline Herschel's legacy is undoubtedly lasting. There are not only the discoveries in themselves, she was also incredibly meticulous in cataloguing and recording her discoveries, and in the transcription of astronomical data. The NGC, the New General Catalogue, is largely based on her work, and even today many galaxies are still identified by their NGC numbers.  

Obviously, much has improved for women in science since the 18th Century. In your view and your experience, what do you regard as changes that have happened in terms of women in science?    

The situation of course has improved in contrast to Caroline's time. In many areas, women and men now enjoy equal opportunities and there have been many positive changes. But there are still fewer women in STEM at higher levels – mainly I think because it is difficult to combine a professional career in science with having children. I think that employers should provide more support for women, so they can combine having a family with having a career. Scientists are evaluated by productivity. In that sense, when women start a family, their productivity is seen to decline as women who have families often take a break from their careers, hoping to return after a few years. But in reality, it's not that easy to continue with the same level of work productivity as before while rearing children. This means that in career terms, women still tend to be punished for having a family. Also, ironically, the time in women's lives when they want to have children and the time when they really want to work hard on their careers often coincides, when women are in their 30s. I think this should be reflected by family friendly initiatives in the workplace - women shouldn't have to choose between a family and a career.

What do you think is necessary in order for more girls to get involved in STEM disciplines, so that more women will pick up and remain in STEM professions? Do you consider mentor programs useful?

I think mentoring programmes are a good thing. To encourage younger girls – and also boys - to develop in an interest in science, I believe that school events can be inspirational. Something like a visit to a planetarium, for example, where kids can see science at first hand. I also think that when scientists give talks to school children, there should be a good gender balance of the speakers. If there are zero women amongst the scientists they encounter, girls might feel that this is a career path that is just not open to them. So I think a good balance is essential to ensure that children know it's a career that is open to everyone.  

What advice would you give young women considering science as a career path?

I would say to young women that an academic career is long and tough, but getting back to Caroline Herschel, that obstacles can be overcome if you're motivated by passion. Passion in science is essential for being happy with a career in science. I think that's what my advice would be – if you're passionate about a career in science, follow your heart!

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