December 31, 2016

Monthly Science Book Review: The Comet Sweeper

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

The Comet Sweeper

The Comet Sweeper

As I announced a few weeks ago I’ve decided to start a new regular feature here on Georneys: a monthly science book review. At the beginning of every month, I’ll announce what science book I’ll be reading. At the end of the month, I’ll write a book review, which may be short or long, depending upon how much time I have and how much I have to say about the book. Feel free to also read the book and leave your thoughts in the comments. We can have a sort of science book club, if you like! The motivation, again, for this book review series is to keep science, and the history of science, at the forefront of my mind during a time when I worry about support of scientific endeavors worldwide and particularly in my home country of the USA. I also want to motivate myself to read some interesting books and to blog a little more regularly!

Without further ado, let me move on to my very first monthly science book review. During December I read a book called The Coment Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition by Claire Brock. This book is a biography of Caroline Herschel, who was a famous astronomer in the late 1700s and 1800s. Caroline assisted her brother William Herschel, who was also a famous astronomer. William was known for pioneering new telescope designs and observing techniques. While Caroline was often known, especially during the early days of her scientific endeavors, as merely an assistant to William, she was in reality an accomplished astronomer in her own right and was even awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (based in the UK) in 1828. The next time that a woman was awarded this prize was in 1996 when it was awarded to Vera Rubin. One of Caroline’s most important contributions to astronomical science was the discovery of several comets, which she found through diligent, methodical “sweeping” of the night skies. Caroline also made important contributions to updating catalogs of astronomical objects, such as stars and nebulae. Originally from Germany, Caroline spent much of her life in the UK.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about “The Comet Sweeper”. The book has both good and bad qualities. However, the book is fairly short (the hardcover edition I read looks somewhat thick, but the text is large) and is thus a quick read, so I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the life of the extraordinary Caroline Herschel. I certainly learned much about Caroline’s life! However, I felt disappointed by what I felt was a lackluster execution of a biography of an illustrious and historically important scientist.

Let me start with what I consider to be the book’s bad qualities. The writing was overall tedious and was difficult to follow at times. While I enjoyed that the book’s author diligently consulted primary sources, the book felt too esoteric at times. In general, the book felt like more of an academic essay than a popular science account. I wouldn’t have minded that too much, except that over and above that the book was often confusing. I felt as if the author knew her subject too well and forgot to include a few key points of chronology and such for the readers, who (if they’re like me) are not experts on Caroline’s life. I also found it frustrating and confusing that Caroline was referred to as “Herschel” while her male relatives were referred to by their first names. The book could definitely have benefited from some editing and polishing.

With the bad points covered, the book does have many, many good qualities — and again I would recommend it as a read. The author did an excellent job of conveying the complex nature of Caroline Herschel, without (in my opinion) overemphasizing or romanticizing her contributions to science. The book portrays Caroline as a real person, with both aspirations and doubts, with both cold scientific reasoning and warm (and sometimes cold) human emotions. The author also does an excellent job of placing Caroline in the context of her time. I came away with an appreciation that all that Caroline accomplished was, in her time, astonishingly extraordinary. More than that, it was extraordinary that the male-dominated scientific community recognized her achievements to the extent that they did, even if at times she was considered merely a diligent and talented assistant for her brother William. Caroline was even paid for her astronomical work, something that no other woman of her time accomplished.

While the constant quoting from primary sources did make the book feel a little too academic, perhaps, I appreciated all of the details that I learned about Caroline’s life from the book.


Here are a few things that I learned about Caroline’s life:

-Caroline was stricken with typhus at age 10, which stunted her growth, affected her vision in one eye, and generally affected her appearance. After her illness, her parents considered her unfit for marriage. So, she initially assisted with housework (in her childhood home) and eventually went to live with her brother William, managing his household and also assisting with his careers.

-Caroline and her brother William were originally musicians, as were several of their other relatives. Before embarking on astronomy, Caroline and William had successful careers at musicians, based mostly in Bath in the UK. William played several instruments and was also an accomplished composer. After training her voice diligently for several years, Caroline became a talented singer.

-William eventually decided to leave music for astronomy. He managed to earn a royal salary to be an astronomer, but the pay was initially about half of what he was earning as a musician. Caroline was initially annoyed about the switch in profession and income but supported her brother throughout.

-William, assisted by Caroline, worked very hard to pioneer new, larger, better telescopes. The new telescopes allowed them to see more objects more clearly. However, the new telescopes alone did not lead to scientific success — they had to be used properly. Caroline and William worked extremely diligently and methodically with their observing, greatly improving earlier astronomical cataloging. They “swept” the skies countless nights, keeping meticulous notes. They charted and drew objects, since of course there was no photography at the time!

-After a little time, Caroline was able to assist William highly efficiently. They were able to work very quickly and accurately together in their observing work. However, Caroline did, at times, relish when William was away and she was at liberty to sweep the skies on her own, looking, for example, for comets.

-I had read before that Caroline was very upset when William eventually married. This is true — the marriage was quite upsetting for Caroline and strained the bond between the siblings for a time. However, in later years Caroline was very fond of her sister-in-law Mary and also of her nephew John.

-Caroline kept working in astronomy late into her life. Even after she moved back to Germany and no longer had access to large telescopes, she compiled important information on nebulae from her notes. She bitterly disliked aging and not being able to keep up with her work as she had in her youth. While she was perhaps initially a reluctant astronomer, Caroline was, in the end, no mere astronomical assistant — she was a brilliant and dedicated astronomer, who continued her work even after her brother’s death.

-Caroline had a somewhat bitter and brazen personality. She often felt frustrated with her life, as she expressed in journal entries and letters. She did not enjoy having to behave in certain ways for polite society, she was stubborn about many things, and she fiercely desired independence, both financial and intellectual. That said, I wonder if the author of the book overemphasized the so-called “negative” aspects of Caroline’s personality. Or, I wonder, if perhaps Caroline used her writing as a way to vent about a life that, certainly, put up obstacles. Not that Caroline let too many obstacles stay in her way, for too long! Perhaps Caroline’s writing makes her seem more bitter than she actually was, although I suppose that’s speculation and probably wishful thinking on my part!

-Caroline lived to be 97 years old, a very long life today and certainly a very, very long life when she died in 1848.


For all that I learned about Caroline’s life and legacy, “The Comet Sweeper” was well worth a read.