Science carries on while society falls apart

Turning on the news first thing in the morning has been a lifelong habit of me. Just like thousands of other people, I would hate to think that the something exciting had happened overnight without my knowing about it. Recently, however, the morning news has been so discouraging that I often switch to music for the rest of the day. Learning more about natural disasters thousands of miles from home, or human foolishness in capitals across the world makes a harsh background to our everyday life.

Sometimes it seems the only way to remain calm and carry on is to ignore the feverish

neutron starGW170817.rect_-150x150
Neutron star


activity of politicians, pundits and the cruelties of societies turning on one another. Music is a good escape, and so is paying attention to the work of scientists whose dramatic breakthroughs bring good news to a world absorbed in the bad news of politics. This week we had the dramatic story of how astronomers discovered the collision of two neutron stars, an event that had been predicted but never before actually seen. As the Scientific American announced in its story about the event, “Spacetime ripples from a stellar cataclysm in a distant galaxy help explain the cosmic origins of gold, and chart the course for a new age of “multi-messenger” astronomy”

Even as our ordinary world carries on its squabbling about who-said-what and which party will win the prize in the next election, science is carrying on the important work of the world—discovering new knowledge and sharing it with all of us.

Women have long played a major role in astronomy, and in honor of this event I want to call your attention to the role of women in studying the stars. Several years ago I wrote a blog post about Caroline Herschel, one of the pioneers. Caroline and her brother William were able to work with the primitive telescopes available in the 18th century to chart the movements of stars. Caroline specialized in finding comets as they flashed across the sky.

It wasn’t only solitary astronomers who were able to advance the science. The most recent book from Dava Sobel, who has written many books about science and scientists for the general reader, offers a realistic account of how the science works and how many individuals work together to discover the truth about scientific phenomena. She recognized the work of the women astronomers at Harvard University in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. The advances made by these late 19th and early 20th century astronomers still surprise and intrigue readers who wonder how we know what we do about stars and other natural phenomena. Slow, patient cooperation among a large number of scientists was the key to the discovery of how our universe is constructed.


The methods of science—the patience and cooperation of many individuals should be an inspiration to the men and women who are working to make our political and social world a better place to live. The search for knowledge and for solutions to problems grows out of patient cooperation, not hasty judgments and angry quarreling. Reading about people who actually advanced humanity can make us a bit more optimistic about our ability to work together now to overcome the challenges facing people everywhere.

A comet is a sometime thing. Caroline Hershel among the stars

Astronomers around the world were waiting this past week for a mighty comet to come swooping past the earth. The comet, called ISON, was first discovered more than a year ago and astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been following it ever since. Many sky watchers were excited about the prediction that it might provide an amazing display in the sky during the holiday season. But that just didn’t work out.

The comet seemed to flame out over the Thanksgiving weekend, then reappeared and then, unfortunately, disappeared again. This scenario is

Comet ison
Comet ison
apparently familiar to astronomers and accepted by them as all in a night’s work. Much information can be learned from the progress of comets and their disappearance so all is not lost if they fail to flame across the sky and make the TV news. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about astronomy to know what they will be learning, but I wish them well. You can learn more about ISON from the website .

News about the comet reminded me of Caroline Herschel, who worked with her brother William, and specialized in discovering comets. Caroline Herschel was born in Hamburg in 1750; William was twelve years older. The Herschel family was chiefly interested in music, not astronomy, but both William and Caroline wandered into the world of science. William was a successful organist and he sought escape from his strict German family life by moving to England. A few years later, in 1772, he sent for Caroline, his youngest and most congenial sister to join him. She was pockmarked from smallpox and her growth had been stunted by early illness, so her family considered her unmarriageable.

Caroline managed William’s household (which included another brother, Alexander), kept the accounts, and learned enough English to do the shopping and supervise the cook. William was then left free for his job as organist and choirmaster at the Octagon Chapel in Bath—and most importantly for his secret passion—observing the stars.

It wasn’t long until Caroline joined William in observing all of the heavenly bodies they could see through the elaborate new telescope

Caroline and William Herschel at work.
Caroline and William Herschel at work.
William built, with Caroline’s help for some of the polishing. It was far more powerful than the telescopes most other astronomers were using at the time. Night after night the two of them would stand on the lawn with their telescopes watching the planets and stars and keeping track of everything they saw. To keep warm on cold English nights, Caroline would wear layers of petticoats under her skirts.
Caroline’s task was to write down the information that William called out to her as he methodically swept the telescope across the sky. This saved him from having to take his eyes off the stars and adjust his night vision. In between her duties, Caroline was observing the sky herself and learning more and more about how the stars and planets moved.

Ten years after Caroline moved to England, William was offered a position as the King’s Astronomer to King George III. He and Caroline moved to Dachet and later to Slough where they could concentrate just on astronomy. They worked as a pair and Caroline specialized in discovering comets. She discovered eight comets during the 1780s and was recognized as William’s assistant given a small pension by the king.

Caroline’s life became more complicated after William married in 1788 and Caroline no longer ran the household. However, they still worked together as astronomers. After William died, Caroline moved back to Hanover in 1822. Then at last she began to get some recognition. She was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. At the age of 96, in 1846, she received another gold medal from the King of Prussia.

Despite the late and scanty recognition compared to her brother, Caroline Herschel at least had the satisfaction of spending a lifetime doing the work she loved. You can read more about her life as well as the lives of many of the scientists and intellectuals of the period in Richard Holmes’s fascinating and readable book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science