Caroline Herschel: A Google Doodle for pioneer astronomer

16 Mar 2016

To pardon the pun, Caroline Herschel is someone many women astronomers ‘look up to’ as she was the first woman to discover a comet, and now she has been honoured with a Google Doodle to mark what would have been her 266th birthday.

Born in Hanover in modern-day Germany in 1750, Caroline Herschel is a perfect example of someone who was able to overcome severe hardship to become a trailblazer for both the progress of science, as well as the progress of women within a male-dominated astronomical community.

After contracting typhus at the young age of 10, Herschel was left with little hope for a fruitful life as the disease stunted her growth permanently, resulting in her being taken care of by her family in Germany, before she decided to move to England at the age of 22 to live with her brother, William.

As it turned out, William would end up guiding Herschel down a path that would completely revitalise her life thanks to his love of mathematics and astronomy.

Caroline Herschel

In fact, William is perhaps best known as the discoverer of the planet Uranus within our solar system in 1781, which won him obvious praise within academia as well leading to him being given the title of King’s Astronomer by the then king of England, George III.

However, much of his career was spent as a self-made, successful builder of powerful telescopes.

First woman to discover a comet

During these years, William recruited Herschel as his apprentice, in which she quickly progressed to learn the knowledge required to make it on her own as an accomplished astronomer.

Then, in 1786, while looking into the vast cosmos, Herschel achieved something that no woman on Earth had ever done before – and spotted a comet.

That wasn’t the end of her accomplishments, with the following years spent discovering seven more comets in the night sky, one of which was named after her – 35P/Herschel-Rigollet – which was last seen back in 1939.

Caroline Herschel

Portrait of Caroline Herschel. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Having here having made a name for herself as an accomplished astronomer, the English king once again turned to the Herschel family, with George III recruiting her as one of his astronomers, making her the first woman paid for doing scientific work.

But perhaps her grandest achievement was her production of a catalogue of nebulae, which was considered good enough to win the grand prize from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828.

It would be another 168 years until another woman would replicate her success, that being Vera Rubin in 1996.

Living to the grand old age of 96, the king of her native land – Prussia – awarded her a Gold Medal for Science in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of science and astronomy throughout her long career.

Comet image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic