Medal named after Bath astronomer

A new prize – which celebrates outstanding research by women astrophysicists in the UK and Germany – has been named in honour of Bath’s Georgian astronomer Caroline Herschel.

The Caroline Herschel Medal will be administered by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) in collaboration with the German Astronomical Society (Astronomische Gesellschaft, AG). The medal will be given in alternate years to researchers based in the UK and Germany, with an accompanying prize fund of £10,000.

From its foundation in 1820, the RAS included astronomers from Germany, including Caroline Herschel and her brother William, who both moved to Bath in the second half of the 18th-century.

Caroline was the first woman in Britain to receive a royal pension for astronomy, and in 1828 became the first woman to win the RAS Gold Medal, awarded in recognition of her discovery of eight comets and her work refining and updating star catalogues.

The family lived at 19 New King Street – today the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, operated by the Bath Preservation Trust – and it was in the garden there on the night of 13 March 1781, using a homemade telescope, William observed the first planet to be identified since the days of the Ancient Greeks. He initially called his discovery ‘Georgium Sidus’ (George’s Star) after King George III before it was renamed ‘Uranus’ after the Greek God of the sky, Ouranos.  

 With the museum now open again (Wednesday – Sunday weekly), you can once again explore the Bath home where this extraordinary family lived. 

Wander through the house and look through replicas of the telescopes they invented and used, see the music room where William tutored his students and the workshop, where you can still see the furnace and smelting oven used to make the telescopic lenses.  

Caroline’s presence is drawn out through the collections in the house, such as her portrait and visitor book.  The book is a vellum-bound volume that was compiled by her and is written in her own hand, listing over a hundred names of people who came to look through William’s telescopes during their time at Observatory House.  Scientists, writers, artists, politicians and foreign royalty all feature, including Lord Byron, Joseph Haydn, and Fanny Burney.  A digital copy of the book is available for visitors in the Reception Room.

A brand-new audio tour is now available for adult visitors that brings the house to life, with stories about how the Herschel family lived and worked in Bath, exploring their contributions to science and music during their time in 19 New King Street. Also new for 2021 is an audio-visual guide for children – meet Caroline Herschel as she takes you around her home and helps you to explore the home and collections, encouraging you to make your own discoveries.  

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy has astronomy events taking place throughout the year – keep an eye on our website for the latest information, www.bath-preservation-trust.org.uk

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