STEM GLAM GALLERY: Caroline Herschel
Born in Hanover, Germany in 1750, Caroline Herschel was the eighth child of the Herschel family. When she was ten years old, she was struck with the typhus disease, which stunted her growth and left her scarred. She never grew taller than 4 ft 3 inches and it was assumed she would never marry. Throughout her childhood and up until she moved away from her mother, she was made to do household chores for the family under her mother’s supervision. Although her father supported and encouraged all his children to educate themselves well, Caroline Herschel was so overwhelmed by chores that she never got the same chance for education as her brothers did.
Things took a better turn when she turned 22. Her brother, William Herschel, brought her away from the family out of sympathy when he moved to England, where he was an organist and conductor. Although she was mainly the housekeeper for her brother, she learned many new skills from her talented brother. William Herschel trained her to become a singer and gave her opportunities to perform in his concerts. In time, Caroline Herschel built a reputation for herself as a singer and received offers to perform in other cities.
Meanwhile, William Herschel had always been interested in astronomy and often studied the skies as a hobby. Caroline Herschel was not interested in astronomy yet, but she often helped her brother grind and polish the mirrors for his telescopes. She also learned basic mathematics and science from her brother. In 1781, when he was appointed court astronomer by King George III for his discovery of Uranus, William Herschel’s hobby turned into a full-time career. Despite her initial reluctance to leave the musical field, Caroline Herschel decided to support her brother in his career and became her brother’s apprentice at age 32.
As she worked for her brother, Caroline Herschel gradually fell in love with astronomy and became increasingly independent. She learned and understood the mechanics of the craft well, and she was able to act as a substitute for her brother when he was away. She also began to do her own astronomical research and used a small Newtonian sweeper to study the skies in her spare time. She continued working with her brother, recording his observations and doing recalculations based on her own catalogue for efficiency.
In 1783, she made her first discovery; she had discovered an open cluster known today as NGC 2360. In 1786, she became the first woman to discover a comet, a significant achievement in both her personal life and the scientific world. This achievement brought her a considerable amount of fame and recognition as an astronomer. In 1787, King George III hired her as a qualified assistant with a salary of 50 pounds a year, and it was the first time a woman was ever paid for her scientific work.
From then on, her scientific career flourished as she continued to receive distinguished awards and accolades. She discovered seven more comets over the next decade, and also cross-indexed the existing star catalog compiled by England's first "astronomer royal" John Flamsteed, submitting more than 550 stars that had not been included in the original version. In 1828, Herschel was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's top prize. In 1838, the Royal Irish Academy of Sciences in Dublin appointed the 88-year-old Caroline Herschel to its number. In 1846, at the age of 96, she was awarded, on behalf of the King of Prussia, the gold medal of the Prussian Academy of Sciences.
Caroline Herschel died on Jan. 9, 1848, at age 98. Her tombstone inscription reads, “The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens."
Her life story is an inspiration for anyone, not just students in the STEM field. Personally, I was extremely moved by the way she gradually gained her independence and grew to become a top star in a male-dominated field like astronomy. She had spent the majority of her early life serving other people, living in the shadows of her family and repressing her natural interests under the overwhelming work. Her short stature and scars led people to assumptions that she would never be able marry in later life, which turned out to be true. However, beneath the assumptions, there also lay a general belief that her life was destined to be unfortunate, that she would continue to be in the shadows of other people. That could not have been more inaccurate, for we have seen a dazzling array of her awards and honors. She led a long, dignified life with many friends and admirers. In fact, it was an honor to be seen with her in public. When she passed away, the entire scientific community mourned the death of the strong and talented woman that she was.
Here are some things that I took away from her life story:
Never underestimate anyone. Everyone has the potential to succeed and do well in life. “But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid,” said Albert Einstein.
However, to a certain degree, luck does play a role in success. A person needs to be met with the right people and situations to jump-start that success. If Caroline Herschel did not have such a kind and talented brother, she would not have discovered her talents in singing or astronomy. William Herschel was extremely important to her as a mentor.
But ultimately, luck can only take you so far. Talent and hard work completes the rest of the story. Caroline Herschel became an accomplished scientist through her efforts. She had put in the hard work to do her own research, and she had the motivation to continue working even without her brother. Her success is well-deserved and not just a product of sheer luck.
To increase the chances of our success, we should increase the number and variety of activities that we participate in. This way, we are more likely to unearth our hidden talents and discover our true passions in life. We earthly beings do not have the luxury of time to sit around and wait for an opportunity to arise. So get out there and do things. As the saying by Douglas MacArthur goes, "The best luck of all is the luck you make for yourself."
Lastly, it’s never too late. Caroline Herschel started as an apprentice in astronomy when she was 32 years old. Granted, she did experience some limitations: for example, she never mastered the multiplication tables because she learned them so late in life, and she had to carry the tables around when she worked. Yet, she still accomplished as much as she did. What excuse do we have?
I hope you enjoyed reading about Caroline Herschel’s story as much as I did. To anyone who is feeling discouraged in life right now, I hope her story has brought you the warmth and motivation you need to get up and get going again. Both fortune and misfortune are ephemeral in life, but here’s to hoping that we all lead fulfilled lives at the end.