NOW, here’s a thing. You have probably heard of Sir William Herschel, the 18th century astronomer and scientist. But how about Caroline Herschel? No. Me neither. But she’s important too, and in the same fields of astronomy and science.
Caroline (like so many women) has been largely lost in the shadow of her great brother and other famous (male) contemporaries or colleagues.
So thanks to Google and its often eccentric anniversary Google-doodles for reminding us about Caroline, who was born Caroline Lucretia Herschel on 16th March 1750 – and lived to the amazing age of 97 (dying on 9th January 1848).
Caroline worked with her brother, who was knighted for his services to astronomy and science. She made several contributions to astronomy, most significantly discovering several comets, including the periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, which bears her name.
She was the first woman to be paid for her contribution to science, to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1835, with Mary Somerville). She was also named an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy (1838). The King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science, on the occasion of her 96th birthday (1846). So she got recognition in her life, although she is less remembered nowadays.
Mary Anning (born 21st May 1799 in Lyme Regis) could sense the presence of fossils like a water diviner on the chalk downs. As a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and had a lifelong struggle to be taken seriously. It was only in 2010 that she was recognised by the Royal Society as one of ten women who had made a significant contribution to British science. You might well argue that the inherent sexism of this still undervalues Anning’s contribution to our knowledge and understanding of paleontology.
Anniversaries help us to remember and pay (belated) tribute to people who have made a huge impact on science, literature, the theatre, the arts and the landscape. Google’s quirky happenstance approach to celebrating birthdays for people who have long been forgotten is usually entertaining and often illuminating.
This year, as always, there are a lot of anniversaries (a trawl around the internet will show you a vast selection) but the big events for 2016 include the Battle of the Somme, the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte and the 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown.
It is also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter – who is still remembered in the Lake District, not for her charming children’s stories but for her work as a Herdwick sheep farmer and her concern to conserve the way of life of the hill farmers.
The memories and the memorials are appropriately sombre for the Battle of the Somme. It is infamous for the terrible loss of life. It took place between 1st July and 18th November 1916 on both sides of the River Somme in France. It was one of the biggest battles of the First World War, with more than 1,000,000 men wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was also notable for the use of air power and the first use of the tank.
The Shakespeare quatercentenary (on 23rd April) is an occasion for celebrations of every kind, from guided walks and talks to Henry V at the Middle Temple in the City of London, Salisbury Cathedral and Sherborne Abbey (among others), archaeology and silent films to The Complete Walk, two and a half miles along the South Bank on 23rd and 24th April, between Westminster and Tower Bridge, with 37 specially-made short films, starring leading actors and shot in worldwide locations.
Charlotte Bronte, whose anniversary falls on 21st April, has already been celebrated with adaptations of Jane Eyre at Bristol Old Vic and on BBC Woman’s Hour. Other plans include a touring exhibition and special projects and an exhibition at the Bronte home at Haworth Parsonage, developed by the Dorset-based novelist Tracy Chevalier, who is a Bronte enthusiast.
Capability Brown, the greatest landscape artist of the greatest period of landscape design, made his mark, quite literally, on the English countryside, from Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth to Compton Verney in Gloucestershire, Milton Abbey in Dorset and Highclere Castle in Hampshire (now probably better known as “Downton Abbey”!) The anniversary is being celebrated with a nationwide festival and events, with the opportunity to visit more than 150 Capability Brown gardens, including some that are not usually open to the public.
You could be a bit cynical and see some of these events as little more than a money-making opportunity but look at them with an open mind and you realise that the best of them are celebrations of people who made a difference. It is all too easy to get depressed in 2016, with the factionalism of the referendum campaign, the unfolding pantomime of politics across the pond and the real horrors in the Middle East.
So happy birthday to Caroline Herschel, Charlotte Bronte, William Shakespeare, Beatrix Potter and Capability Brown!