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The Inimitable Caroline

The sister of British astronomer William Herschel was herself a capable and pioneering celestial observer

J.Donald Fernie

Sister of Bath

Life in Bath fulfilled Caroline's wishes, at least in the beginning. The siblings were immersed in musical activities, and Caroline took several singing lessons a day from her brother, now the choirmaster of the well-to-do Octagon Chapel. (It is often assumed because of their name that the Herschels were Jewish, but family records show they were not. Indeed, John Herschel, William's son, who became the most famous scientist of mid-19th-century England, is buried in the Anglican Church's Westminster Abbey.)

William lived a busy life as the chapel choirmaster, organizing and producing public concerts and composing music in his free time. His sister's way was less clear. English proved to be a difficult language for Caroline, and she made few friends. Her hope for an independent musical career faltered. William evidently concluded that her musical talent was limited, and he did not encourage her to continue.

Soon a new routine entered their lives. Each evening, as William returned home and immediately retired to bed, exhausted by the day's musical activities, he took with him "a bason of milk" and a book on astronomy. Over breakfast the following day, he would present "an astronomical lecture." After reading the few available books on astronomy, he decided to build telescopes and scan the heavens. Before long, Caroline found herself wrapped up in her brother's new obsession, writing that she was "much hindered in my [musical] practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of the various astronomical contrivances." Indeed, William was on the cusp of a second career.

It is fortunate that Herschel had no formal training as an astronomer before starting his observations. If he had, the experts of the day would have taught him the futility of looking at stars, which were mere points of light. According to those learned masters, the only interesting things were solar-system objects! But unencumbered by expert opinion, William decided to study stars. To do this, especially if he wanted to see the lesser known, fainter ones, he needed a large telescope. So he decided to build one.

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