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Birth of Caroline Herschel

Margaret and Ian Millar describe the life of a pioneer astronomer, born on March 16th 1750.

Prospects seemed dreary for young Caroline Herschel, born in Hanover 250 years ago this month, when her father said that, since she lacked either beauty or wealth, she could forget marriage. Apparently all that remained for her was a life of dull drudgery as an unpaid housekeeper in Hanover. But escape came when she was twenty-two, thanks to her elder brother William, who had deserted from the Hanoverian army and set up home in England (then sharing the same royal family) and was now a musician in fashionable Bath. Happier here, though still housekeeping, Caroline began training as a singer, and she also found herself drawn to William’s new enthusiasm: amateur astronomy.

At first she helped her brother with casting, grinding and polishing the reflecting mirrors for his ever bigger and better telescopes. Caroline recorded his observations and calculated star positions for him. Then nine years later, William made his biggest discovery: a new planet, the seventh member of the family (including Earth) moving around the Sun. Astutely, William named the new planet Georgium Sidus after George III, but Uranus was more popular and is the name that has remained.

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