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Review - The Comet Sweeper - Claire Brock

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Herschel is a name that is well known in astronomical circles. There was William Herschel, the musician turned astronomer who discovered Uranus, and his successful son John who made significant contributions to both astronomy and the development of photography. But we shouldn't forget Caroline Herschel, William's sister, who produced her own very significant body of work both independently and as William's assistant.

There is a slight tendency to overplay the importance of those few historical female scientists we can identify. It's not surprising - not only were they relatively uncommon, but what they did tended to be overlooked because it was assumed at the time that women couldn't contribute very much. Here, there is no doubt of Caroline Herschel's contribution - recognized even at the time - so Claire Brock does not have to struggle hard to make the case for Caroline's importance.

A number of important factors come through in the book. Caroline's early subservience to the rest of the family and very limited education. The way her brothers used her as dogsbody - even when William was getting her noticed, first in the musical world and then the astronomical. And the sheer determination with which Caroline applied herself, and would continue to do so for many years in what proved an immensely long life for the period. Not only did Caroline Herschel discover a number of comets (in telescopic sweeps of the sky, hence the title), but made a huge contribution to the cataloguing of stars and particularly nebulae.

There are a few issues with the way Brock addresses this subject. Inevitably there is a whiff of feminism, but one particular attribute of this was simply confusing. Brock, presumably running counter to the old women-as-chattels approach of referring to men by their surnames but women by their given names, almost always refers to Caroline as "Herschel". This is well and good, but bearing in mind at least every other paragraph refers to one or more of the other Herschels - it's not uncommon for three of four to be mentioned in the same chunk of text - it's downright confusing to have Caroline referred to as Herschel, where the men are uniformly referred to by their first names.

It also seemed that Brock was just a trifle generous to Caroline Herschel in her assessment of the early female astronomer's character. We are told that Caroline was a cheerful, positive person, yet she comes across as one of those (not uncommon in the sciences) people who is never happier than when moaning about anything and everything. This isn't a value judgement, it just seems a very strong part of her character - she did plenty of things she really didn't need to do (particularly returning to Hanover apparently against her will for the last 20-odd years of her life), while complaining bitterly about this, just as she had complained about the interference in their working pattern caused by William getting married and all sorts of other irritations, some justified, others not. It really does come across from the evidence, but not from Brock's assessment, that Caroline wasn't happy unless she had something to moan about.

Overall, this is an interesting contribution to the picture of life in this interesting family, which to date has been dominated by the male figures in the Herschel dynasty, reinforcing the importance of Caroline Herschel's work in astronomical history.

Only in hardback.

Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007