Nothing Compared to the Stars

Text below from a letter, which I think very beautiful, written by German-British astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). She refers to Aganice (Aglaonice) of Thessaly, considered the first astronomer in ancient Greece.

William is away, and I am minding the heavens. I have discovered eight new comets and three nebulae never before seen by man, and I am preparing an Index to Flamsteed’s observations, together with a catalogue of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue, plus a list of errata in that publication. William says I have a way with numbers, so I handle all the necessary reductions and calculations. I also plan every night’s observation schedule, for he says my intuition helps me turn the telescope to discover star cluster after star cluster.

I have helped him polish the mirrors and lenses of our new telescope. It is the largest in existence. Can you imagine the thrill of turning it to some new corner of the heavens to see something never before seen from earth? I actually like that he is busy with the Royal society and his club, for when I finish my other work I can spend all night sweeping the heavens.

Sometimes when I am alone in the dark, and the universe reveals yet another secret, I say the names of my long, lost sisters, forgotten in the books that record our science —

Aganice of Thessaly,
Hypatia,
Hildegard,
Catherina Hevelius,
Maria Agnesi
— as if the stars themselves could remember. Did you know that Hildegard proposed a heliocentric universe 300 years before Copernicus? that she wrote of universal gravitation 500 years before Newton? But who would listen to her? She was just a nun, a woman.

What is our age, if that age was dark? As for my name, it will also be forgotten, but I am not accused of being a sorceress, like Aganice, and the Christians do not threaten to drag me to church, to murder me, like they did Hyptia of Alexandria, the eloquent, young woman who devised the instruments used to accurately measure the position and motion of heavenly bodies.

However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them. Your name, like mine, is a song.

Write soon ,
Caroline

The comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, named after Caroline Herschel is expected to reappear to earthbound observers on March 16 2092. “The asteroid 281 Lucretia (discovered 1888) was named after Caroline’s second given name, and the crater C. Herschel on the Moon is named after her.”

Caroline was celebrated in a poem by Adrienne Rich.

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