The comet huntress

If people ask what sort of historian I am, if I am being somewhat formal I answer a narrative historian of the contextual history of science. That’s quite a mouthful and if I have to explain it I say, I’m a storyteller. I tell stories from the history of science, not anecdotes but factually based stories. For me the most important aspect of those stories is that the scientific elements are embedded in the social, political, cultural, religious, intellectual and economic contexts of their time. Science for all of its supposed objectivity does not live outside of human culture but is an integral part of it. If I was asked to give an example of how my approach to the history of science works in practice I might well point people towards Emily Winterburn’s The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel.[1]

Caroline Herschel001

In this book Emily Winterburn has delivered up a perfect example of how to write a narrative history of the contextual history of science.

Emily Winterburn, who is an Internet friend, wrote an excellent doctoral thesis, which I have as a pdf, on The Herschels: A scientific family in training as a part time student at Imperial College. I assumed that she would turn this work into a book but she chose instead to concentrate her efforts on just one member of this extraordinary family of astronomers, Caroline.

Caroline Herschel002

This is not a full biography of Caroline Herschel but is an in depth look at just one decade in her life, the ten years in which she ceased to be merely Williams sister and assistant and became a fully fledged observational astronomer in her own right. What also makes this decade in her life so interesting for the historian is that Caroline kept journals all her life and also wrote autobiographies for her relatives but for some reason she destroyed her personal records for just these ten years, her, in scientific terms, most productive ones.

Winterburn’s book does not just concentrate on Caroline’s astronomical discoveries, comets and nebulae, but embeds these in the full social, political, economic and cultural context in which Caroline lived and worked during this period. In particular Winterburn illuminates the strategies and tactics that Caroline and also William used to help her gain access to the exclusively male world of late eighteenth century science. Alone this aspect of the book makes it a valuable piece of eighteenth century British social and cultural history and well worth the purchase price.

Winterburn deals in detail with the shifting relationships that Caroline had with the various members of her family, especially both her domestic and her working relationships with her elder brother William. She illuminates, in particular, very nicely how that working relationship evolved as Caroline became not just William’s assistant but an astronomer in her own right also how her role as assistant also evolved as William’s research interests changed over the years. On the domestic side both William’s marriage and the advent of his son John Herschel also caused significant changes in Caroline’s life.

With increasing fame Caroline a shy and retiring person also had to deal with more and more contacts with people outside of her close family circle, something that was in many senses a cause of stress for her. However she still managed to develop personal relationships with leading astronomers such as Lalande and Maskelyne, a slow process that Winterburn illustrates very skilfully.

There is much in depth background material on eighteenth century astronomy, the role of women at this time, particularly in science, and the social structures of Georgian England. This is not just a portrait of an important pioneering female astronomer but a full contextual description of what it meant to be a pioneering female astronomer in the late eighteenth century. Winterburn has written a masterpiece of contextual, narrative history of science, which is also a prime example of first class feminist historiography. She writes superbly with a light touch and her book is a delight to read. I started it in my hospital bed and when I came home it became my bedtime reading. The short but information packed chapters are just the right length for reading before turning off the light and I was quite sad when I finished the book and had to find something else to finish the day.

Because the book is based largely on primary sources the bibliography is very short but Winterburn also gives a list of books for potential further reading. There are endnotes (he said through gritted teeth), which are mostly just references and a comprehensive index. In the middle of the book there is a collection of black and white plates.

If you are interested in the history of astronomy, feminist history, Georgian history or just like an excellent read then buy this book, I promise you won’t regret it.






[1] Emily Winterburn, The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy, The History Press, Stroud, 2017



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5 responses to “The comet huntress

  1. As it happens, I have just finished reading this book and am delighted to see your support for it.
    As you say, it is not the usual sort of biography but neither is it a hagiographical account. I felt it made clear Caroline’s faults, mainly in the social arena and mainly I would guess largely constructs of her times and culture.
    I myself write on the history of women in engineering and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of such-and-such a woman is amazing because she was the first woman to do a thing, whilst what she actually might have done was not that significant compared to median males in that field.
    Caroline was of course a ‘first woman’ in many ways but delightfully was also a significant scientist whose work can stand next to anyone else’s of those times.

  2. Laurence Cox

    Rather like London buses, you wait for ages for a book about Caroline Herschel and then two come along at once. Also published in 2017 (in paperback, after coming out in hardback in 2007) was Claire Brock’s “The Comet Sweeper” (ISBN 978-1-78578-166-7).

    Simon Mitton, the Cambridge University astronomer, reviewing it on Amazon said “This is the best biography of Caroline Herschel available, and the whole story is nicely told. It is a delightful read. However, in terms of scholarship, the book is disturbingly weak on the scientific background to the achievements of the Herschels. We learn little about what other astronomers in England and France are up to, and nothing about the major intellectual puzzles of the time. The author does not tell us how deeply important William Herschel’s surveys were for establishing survey astronomy as the wave of the future. Despite these criticisms I recommend this short account. Importantly, Claire Brock shows that Caroline Herschel was much more than a mere note taker for her elder brother.”

    I agree with his review; it illustrates the limitations when someone in an Arts & Humanities faculty (in this case at the University of Leicester) writes on the History of Science.

  3. theazimechproject

    Reblogged this on Resting Goth Face.

  4. I’m reading this on your recommendation – very much enjoying it.

    The only thing I thought a little odd is you’re usually very picky about detail, and there were some surprising errors. For example, it says that first magnitude stars are brighter than Venus, it mentions the University of Aberdeen, which didn’t exist until the late 19th century (the reference must have been to one of the totally independent King’s College or Marischal College) and it makes it sound as if Henry Cavendish was only a chemist, despite his huge amount of work in physics, including the density of the Earth experiment that led to G being quantified and all his electrical work that Maxwell spent so long working through (the book even contrasts him as a chemist with someone else as an electromagnetic investigator).

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