Ambition, thy name is woman

Caroline Herschel has enjoyed fluctuating fame since the day in 1786 when she discovered her first comet. In The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition, author Claire Brock examines the reasons for that as well as the circumstances of Herschel’s life, which were not straightforward. As the youngest daughter in a large family, Herschel’s mother earmarked her early on for a life of domestic servitude, to save paying another servant. This conflicted with – and perhaps even caused – Herschel’s own ambition to earn enough to support herself. Brock argues that this remained Herschel’s primary ambition for much of her life, though the means by which she tried to earn her keep changed a few times. There was a brief flirtation with millinery and a much longer, not unsuccessful, musical career in Bath before her brother William’s interest in astronomy stopped being a side project and he co-opted Caroline as his assistant. Brock quotes extensively from Herschel’s letters and memoirs, revealing a woman who often came across as bitter about her lot in life – particularly her dependence on William. But Brock argues that while Herschel perhaps never did love astronomy, she certainly had ambition to make real contributions to it, for the sake of science as well as her own personal advancement. In 1787 she was granted her own salary by King George III, thus becoming the first woman to earn her living from astronomy and achieving her life’s ambition. Brock also quotes from other contemporary accounts, particularly those by women, to give a deeper flavour of the life Herschel lived. But most of all, she emphasizes Herschel’s drive to always improve herself, to self-educate in every spare moment. Brock paints a rounded portrait of a woman too-often reduced to a side note in her brother’s biography.

  • 2017 Icon Books 304pp £8.99pb

Mars is bright tonight

Apart from our home planet of Earth, the red planet is the most visited planet in our solar system. It is not surprising then, that humans have long been interested in and intrigued by Mars, both scientifically and culturally. In 4th Rock from the Sun: the Story of Mars, author Nicky Jenner explores all these aspects of one of our nearest neighbours, going into the planet’s evolution, its geology and its moons, as well covering our robotic explorations of Mars and plans for humans to visit it in the near future. Despite a somewhat banal beginning, Jenner picks up the pace in her opening chapter as she tries to deduce our fascination with the planet, giving the reader a good description of what it would be like to traverse the Martian surface, before describing why, in fact, Mars would make for a rather boring and inhospitable holiday destination. Although most of us will be aware of the rather cold and varying temperatures on Mars, it may come as a surprise to find out that standing on the Martian surface would put your feet tens of degrees warmer than your head. The next few chapters are also interesting – Jenner digs into how human beings have anthropomorphized the planet; the fact that its red hue is particularly eye-catching; the planet’s apparent switch in direction (retrograde motion); and the fact that many respectable scientists were, at one point, convinced that Mars harboured advanced life forms. Other chapters talk about Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos; “robot cars” or rovers and their exploration of the dusty planet; and the realities of a manned mission to Mars. In a particularly strong chapter, Jenner discusses the “massive Mars problem” – the issue of how Mars’ size has thrown off our theories for how terrestrial planets form. Although the book is somewhat haphazard in its flow, and Jenner occasionally repeats herself, 4th Rock from the Sun is both a useful and enjoyable read, especially for those interested in the planet’s cultural significance as much as the science. Grab a copy to catch up on all things Martian, especially if you plan on visiting the red planet anytime soon.

  • 2017 Bloomsbury Sigma 272pp £16.99hb