University of Texas at Austin

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Revamped Herschel materials bring students closer to history and the stars

Even if you look through the telescope on the roof of Robert Lee Moore Hall in the middle of The University of Texas at Austin campus, it’s hard to feel close to the stars and other celestial objects.

Walk over to the Harry Ransom Center and you can get very close – and yes, even personal – to some of the people who made a science of looking at the skies.

For Mary Kay Hemenway, a research associate and senior lecturer in the Department of Astronomy, that means checking out letters and other materials of Caroline Herschel.

John Herschel's drawings of Halley's Comet.

John Herschel's drawings of Halley's Comet.

Caroline Herschel was a member of the Herschel family, a German-English family at the forefront of arts and sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Ransom Center has used a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics to rehouse and rearrange its holdings of the Herschel family papers and to create an online finding aid. The center announced this week that the collection is open.

The materials largely represent the life and work of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871), the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist and experimental photographer and inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The materials include papers from other family members including Caroline, John’s aunt.

Caroline’s materials are what particularly intrigue Hemenway.

Caroline Herschel at 92.

Caroline Herschel at 92.

“My favorite items are the day-book and diaries of Caroline Herschel,” Hemenway said. “She had such an interesting life – a sort of Cinderella story where her prince was her brother who rescued her from a life of cleaning and housekeeping to study music, and then work her way from his assistant in astronomy to become an astronomer in her own right.”

William discovered the planet Uranus and designed telescopes to catalog the skies.

Starting out by helping her brother, Caroline Herschel became an expert at astronomical observation. She found eight comets among other discoveries. She won honors from England and Germany and was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Hemenway is familiar with the Ransom Center’s resources, having made it a field trip destination for her Signature Course. Her most recent course was “Astronomy and the Humanities.”

“On our visits, we see the major works (mostly in Latin) from sources such as Copernicus and Kepler and Newton, and items (in Italian) from Galileo,” she said.

Mary Kay Hemenway

Mary Kay Hemenway

She became personally acquainted with the Herschel materials in 2009 when she worked with the Ransom Center to prepare an exhibit for the International Year of Astronomy.

“These original notes (of Caroline Herschel) have an advantage when working with students – they are in English and they include both astronomy notes and notes about her social life,” Hemenway said.

She said an item often considered in her class is a poem, “Letter from Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)” by Siv Cedering. You can find it here.

Here are a few lines from the poem:

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.

Find more on the Herschel materials from the Ransom Center.

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