Caroline Herschel

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I rarely get commissioned to do pure research work for others, but when I do, it’s always a pleasure, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. I was working on such a task last week, and the name Caroline Herschel came up as a footnote to my work. I didn’t really have time to explore her as she wasn’t the focus of the research, but I jotted her name down in my notebook. On the weekend I did some reading up on her, and she seems to be worthy of more than just a footnote.

Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), sister of astronomer William Herschel who discovered the planet Uranus, was an extraordinary woman who was consigned to the footnote of history by her parents. Stunted by a childhood disease, it was assumed she would never marry. So of course, her parents decided she would become a maid; a woman who wasn’t attractive and who couldn’t marry was not much use to her family in those times, unless she was a domestic servant. Although her name is mentioned alongside her brother’s more well-known discoveries, she was an astronomer in her own right, discovering several comets, and becoming the first woman to receive a wage for scientific work.

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It’s hard not to see a connection between her interest in astronomy and her desire for independence. I’d like to think that what began as an escape from her parents’ household also became a metaphorical escape into the potential of the limitless universe. And I also found the timing of me literally stumbling upon a reference to her while doing research work to be more than just a coincidence.

Every time I get to do research work, I feel this maddening frustration that I can’t do this all the time – that such work only randomly comes my way once every blue moon. I eat it up when it does, and I feel like I thrive. And then it’s over, and I realise that there’s no clear career path in it. I am not unique. There are many people with inquisitiveness, a hunger for knowledge and a love of narratives. The world seemingly can’t accommodate us all. Or, at least, that’s how it sometimes feels. It’s hard to go back to normal work when you’ve been given fascinating research work that inadvertently introduces you to people like Caroline Herschel in the process. It makes me wonder how many things I’ll never get to know about because quite simply, there isn’t a job, or money, or time, attached to them.

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I know this is self-indulgent complaining, but everyone is allowed that every once in a while. When I finish a commissioned piece of research work, I feel like sending an email to the person who hired me: ‘give me a full-time job in this please!’ I can only hope that like Caroline, one day my interests will actually produce a ‘career’. I may not discover comets, but I’d like to discover stories.

Image credits (top to bottom): The Wizard Nebula, discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787; Another image of The Wizard Nebula; The Sculptor Galaxy, discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783; Another image of The Sculptor Galaxy.