Friday, November 15, 2013

The Herschels

It's funny how interest and/or personal connection heightens awareness.  Our pastor owns a light blue Prius... despite the fact that there are roughly 2.3 million light blue Priuses (Priusi?) in the Portland metro area, I still look every time to see if it's him.  Same goes for red Focus wagons, charcoal Corollas and a zillion other cars.  Shoot, I still notice 13-year-old blue Honda Accords, and it's been two years since the other half drove one of those.

As with cars, so it goes with historical research subjects.  I'm sure you wondered how I planned to segue after that introduction.

I've been noodling around several potential profile subjects for a children's magazine at which I do a lot of freelancing.  One of them is a woman named Caroline Herschel, who was sister to William Herschel, a groundbreaking, self-taught astronomer who discovered Uranus, among other things.  Caroline overcame numerous childhood challenges to become a tremendously skilled astronomer in her own right, with a talent for discovering comets.  I've been sitting here checking my email and tending to my slightly under-the-weather offspring, and having finished other tasks I decided (as one does, if one's a history nerd) to Google this date in history.

Guess whose birthday it is?

Meet William Herschel!

Here's his sister, too, for the sake of equality.  Turns out that despite his amazing innovations in crafting new telescopes, his dogged commitment to research excellence and his aptitude for discerning the deeper truths underlying his discoveries (the notion of "deep space," for example, was something he made great strides in understanding), our man William couldn't have accomplished all this without his sister's assistance.  Caroline and William formed a team; she spent years' worth of nights carefully recording his observations, assisting with his groundbreaking telescope manufacturing, and conducting research in her own right.

The story of William and Caroline Herschel is a useful reminder of the limitations of the "great man" theory of history.  Some people are, indeed, uniquely endowed with talents and gifted with the capacity to use them.  William was one of these people.  Even these folks, though, rely on the support, the ingenuity, and the gifts of other people.  I hope my profile of Caroline Herschel will contribute in some small way to correcting such misapprehensions.

Wonder where else the Herschels will turn up?

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