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Women in Science: Astronomy

What is Astronomy?

A natural science, astronomy includes studies such as:  
Astrometry, Cosmology, Extragalactic astronomy, Galactic astronomy, Planetary science, and Stellar astronomy.

To learn more about women astronomers, you can browse our catalog, or check out the books listed below! 

Agnes Mary Clerke

Born: February 10, 1842
Died: January 20, 1907

Born in Ireland, Agnes Mary Clerke's early life was unusual, largely due to the fact that both she and her sister were educated at home, and allowed to study what they wished. From an early age, her interest revolved around science, mathematics, and the history of astronomy. At eleven, she had read the entire 800+ pages of John Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy, and at fifteen, began to write her own history of astronomy. Four years later, when Clerke was 19, her family moved to Dublin. There, her brother, who was studying mathematics and physics at Dublin University, began to tutor her in university level studies of advanced math, physics, and astronomy. At 25, both she and her sister moved to Italy to continue their studies, primarily living in Florence. 

In 1877, the sisters returned to the UK, settling in London, where Agnes began publishing articles she'd written during her time in Italy. Appearing in the Edinburgh Review, her first, Brigandage in Sicily, discussed Mafia's rise in Italy, while in her second, Copernicus in Italy, she wrote about pre-Copernican ideas in Italy. Eventually, she would publish 55 articles in the Review. The publishers for the Review also happened to be the publishers of the ninth Encyclopaedia Britannica edition, and invited Clerke to contribute for the next section, G-L, where she wrote biographies of scientists such as Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, and Pierre-Simon Laplace. 

She went on to publish several more books, as well as articles and biographies for many other periodicals and encyclopedias. The most well known of her works, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, was published in 1885, and received praise and recognition from many well known voices in the scientific community at the time.

In 1892, the Royal Institution awarded her the Actonian Prize, and as a member of the British Astronomical Association, she attended both their and the Royal Astronomical Society's meetings. In 1903, she was elected to be an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, joining the likes of Caroline Herschel, Lady Huggins, and Mary Sommerville, the only other women to have ever received that rank.

While never a practical astronomer, Clerke was one of the leading commentator of astronomy and astrophysics in the English-speaking world, and her writings helped further the popularization of science in the Western world.

 For more about Agnes, check out these books!

Caroline Herschel

Born: March 16, 1750
Died: January 9, 1848

In contrast to Agnes Mary Clerke, Caroline Herschel's education was limited. While her father, a musician, wanted all of his children to be well educated, her mother didn't see a need for Caroline, instead, wanting her to become a house servant for their family. 

After typhus caused her childhood to be wracked with sickeness, and eventually stunted her growth, Caroline remained living with her family until she was twenty-two, when her brother William, a musician like their father, took her to both live with him and function as his housekeeper in Bath. While living with William, he trained her in voice and mathematics, both subjects in which Caroline excelled. She went on to be a well known soprano, singing professionally. In their free time, Caroline worked with William on his hobby, astronomy, for which he built better and stronger telescopes in order to explore deep space easier. 

Eventually, William's reputation as a telescope maker allowed him to quit is job and devote all of his time to astronomy and telescopes. It was then that Caroline began to assist William more and more, growing to share his passion for the science. At first, she functioned as his assistant, but eventually became so accomplished that she worked more and more on her own, eventually helping her brother develop a modern mathematical approach to astronomy that is still used today. She recorded every observation both she and her brother made. While beginning as a compilation of the 2,500 new nebulae and star clusters they discovered, the Catalogue has since been enlarged and renamed as "New General Catalogue." This is still used today, and many non-stellar objects are still identified by their 'NGC number.' 

While William was a successful astronomer (he discovered Uranus in 1781, becoming knighted and appointed King George III's court astronomer), Caroline was a brilliant astronomer in her own right. Discovering many nebulae and star clusters in her solo observations, she became the first woman to discover a comet in August of 1876. While she had been working with her brother for years, it was this discovery that prompted King George III to officially employ her as William's assistant, giving her a title and a salary, making her the first woman paid for scientific research and services. 

By the time she passed away in 1848, Caroline had discovered seven other comets, combined and cross-indexed the existing star catalog used by English scientists at the time, submitting over 550 stars not previously included, and received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and an honorary membership. To this day, several of her comets bear her name, as well as a lunar crater, the C. Herschel, and the Asteroid Lucretia.

For more about Caroline, check out these books!

LHL Lectures: Sara Seager

Sara Seager is the Ellen Swallow Richards Associate Professor of Planetary Science and Associate Professor of Physics at MIT.

For thousands of years people have wondered, "Are we alone?" With over 400 planets discovered to orbit nearby stars, the existence of "exoplanets" is firmly established. Professor Seager will present highlights of recent exoplanet discoveries and discuss when we might find another Earth and what kinds of signs of life we are looking for.

Great Reads