Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Caroline's Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully

Caroline's Comets is a children's picture book about Caroline Herschel the first woman to discover a comet, the first woman to be paid for her scientific contributions and the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal!

Caroline was born in 1750 in Hanover, Germany, the eighth child of Isaac and Anna Ilse Herschel and the only surviving girl of the Herschel family.

Caroline's childhood was a challenging one. She caught typhus at age ten. This serious illness stunted Caroline's growth; she grew to be only four feet three inches tall. After recovering from typhus, Caroline caught small pox which left her with facial scars. Because of her physical scars, Caroline's parents believed she would never marry.

While her mother felt Caroline should receive only limited schooling and should be trained domestically, Caroline's father who was a musician, gave her a musical education along with her five brothers. When she was twenty-two, Caroline relocated to Bath, England where her older brother William worked as an organist and conductor. In Bath, Caroline began serious training as a singer. William provided Caroline with the opportunity to perform as a soprano in his concerts.

Eventually William's interest in astronomy led to him leaving his musical career. He had became determined to develop a better, more powerful telescope and his reputation as a telescope maker became well known. Caroline often helped her brother with his observations and she began to learn the mathematics that modern day astronomy is based upon.  She also helped him make his reflective telescopes, in particular  helping with the grinding and polishing of the mirrors. William's work paid off when in 1781, he discovered a new planet, Uranus. It was a discovery that happened mostly by chance but it led to him being offered the new position of royal astronomer by King George III. Eventually Caroline too, quit her musical career to become an assistant to her brother and was paid for this work - the first time a woman received remuneration for work in a field of science.

It was shortly after this that Caroline began to make some serious contributions to the science of astronomy. In 1783 she discovered three new nebulae (clouds of gas and dust that gives birth to stars) and between 1786 and 1797 she discovered eight comets. Caroline Herschel produced a large body of work in the field of astonomy; she began cataloguing star clusters and nebulae, she discovered fourteen comets, she added more than 550 new stars to John Flamsteed's star catalogue, and she was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Two catalogues Caroline Herschel created are still used today by astronomers. Caroline passed away at the age of 98 in 1848.

McCully's Caroline's Comets covers all the details of Caroline Herschel's life and then some. To tell Caroline's story, McCully uses carefully chosen portions of text from the Memoir and Correspondence of Caroline Herschel edited by Mrs. John Herschel. As a result, McCully  includes some of the finer details of Caroline's life, making it a more personal and therefore a more interesting account. For example, young readers will learn that it was Caroline's father who introduced the stars, constellations and comets to her at a young age. Caroline's success is yet another example of the importance of fathers in encouraging their daughter's interest in the world around them. McCully's account indicates that Caroline might have ended up as a maid were it not for her father and her brother. William paid for a maid for the family so that Caroline could come to England. Caroline Herschel's life demonstrates that when girls are provided with a good education and the support of their families - that is when they are treated the same as boys-  they are capable of achieving great things!

McCully also includes some interesting facts about William and Caroline's efforts in building better and more powerful telescopes. William and Caroline worked as a team and there was no shortage of accidents as William's telescopes grew in size and power.

Emily Arnold McCully also created the illustrations for her picture book. Her illustrations, rendered with pen, ink and watercolour were reviewed by Dr. Matthew Kadane for accuracy and serve to enhance this fascinating biography. The Note at the back of the book provides a few further interesting facts about Caroline Herschel and a Bibliography, Timeline and Glossary has also been included.

Caroline's Comets is a must-read for any school library, homeschooling family or those interested in sparking the imagination of what's possible and instilling an interest in science in young girls.

Book Details:

Caroline's Comets: A True Story by Emily Arnold McCully
New York: Holiday House

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