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Caroline Herschel & Mary Somerville Hacked Astronomy

In 1835, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville were the first women awarded honorary memberships in the Royal Astronomical Society. Caroline and Mary weren’t the first female astronomers and they certainly weren’t the last, but the level of recognition they earned was groundbreaking. 

From antiquity to the present day, women contributed to astronomy research and education. Generally their level of participation in astronomy has reflected societal views on women. Over the centuries, however, men wrote astronomy books specifically for women, and individual women learned from a sympathetic father, brother, or husband.

Caroline Herschel was educated at home by her father, despite her mother’s objections. After her father died, she moved from Germany to live with her brother William in England. William continued her education in many subjects, especially astronomy. Caroline assisted William with his astronomical work, but also observed on her own. Over the years, she discovered several nebulae and eight comets. 

Title page from Caroline Herschel’s Catalogue of Stars Taken from Mr. Flamsteed's Observations. London: Royal Astronomical Society, 1798 (Adler Collection, QB6 .H42 1798).

Title page from Caroline Herschel’s Catalogue of Stars Taken from Mr. Flamsteed's Observations. London: Royal Astronomical Society, 1798 (Adler Collection, QB6 .H42 1798).

One of Caroline Herschel’s most significant contributions to astronomy was her Catalogue of Stars (1798). The book is an index to John Flamsteed’s catalogue of stars, with a list of his errors and over 500 additional stars. Perusing the pages of this book, one is struck by the level of detail and accuracy required in the task of creating a star catalogue index.

Caroline earned the respect of astronomers, but changing societal views takes many years. A generation later, Mary Somerville received no education until age nine, and even then was discouraged. As a teenager, algebra interested her greatly, but her father forbade her study of the subject. Her first husband had similarly low expectations of her intellectual abilities. After her husband’s death, she again studied mathematics.  

Mary’s second husband, William Somerville, encouraged her interest in math and science. Living in London, the Somervilles socialized in a circle with many famous scientists, including astronomer John Herschel (son of William and nephew of Caroline).

While caring for and educating her six children, and entertaining in their social circle, Mary Somerville also earned the admiration of leading scientists. She published respected works on astronomy, physics, mathematics, chemistry, and geography. Her husband presented her first paper to the Royal Society in 1826. At a time when women were often refused education, Somerville’s The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) and A Preliminary Dissertation on the Mechanism of the Heavens (1832) were frequently used as textbooks in English universities.

Nearly 300 years ago, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville were pioneers for women in astronomy. They are just two of many inspiring women, past and present. This Saturday, teams of girls will join female STEM mentors at the Adler for Girls Do Hack.

Girls Do Hack takes place on Saturday, November 9. Join the conversation online with #GDH2013. 

Written by Jodi Lacy, archivist and digital projects manager at the Adler Planetarium. 

 

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