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Women in Astronomy/Astrophysics - Part 2

The Enlightenment (1715 - 1789) - The place of women in the scientific world

The Enlightenment is an era marked by the beginnings of the evolution of the place of women in scientific fields. Indeed, as women at that time could participate in craft production, some of them decided to embark on the sciences of observation, astronomy in particular.

Maria Margarethe Kirch, born Winkelmann (1670 - 1720) is a German astronomer, one of the most famous of her time. Educated by her father who thought she deserved the same education as the boys, then trained in astronomy by the self-taught astronomer and peasant Christoph Arnold of whom she became the assistant, she met the famous astronomer Gottfried Kirch via Arnold and married him in 1682. As women did not have access to universities then, she continued to study astronomy with Gottfried and worked as a team with him but was considered by the public as his assistant.


Maria and Gottfried's various observations and calculations make it possible to produce calendars, ephemeris, and later almanacs. In 1702, she became the first woman to discover an unknown comet, the “Comet 1702” (C/1702 H1). The credit for this discovery, however, was given to Gottfried at the time and the latter did not restore the truth until 1710. Between 1707 and 1712 she continued to publish scientific articles on the northern lights and the movements of certain planets.

After her husband’s death in 1710, as a woman, she was denied the position formerly held by her husband (astronomer and calendar designer) at the Royal Academy, despite the support of Leibniz, who was its president at the time.

This conflict between Maria and the academy will raise in public opinion the question of the place of women in scientific fields, reserved for men for the people of that time because coming into contradiction with the domestic tasks which are reserved for women.


Questions about the place of women, more and more recurrent, gave rise to 3 camps: Those who think that women are inferior to men intellectually and socially, those who think that men and women are equal but different, and those who believe that women are potentially equal to men in their contribution to society. The existence of the debate allowed women to make many advances in science, including Émilie du Châtelet (1706 - 1749), who was the first to produce a French translation of the Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, the famous work of Isaac Newton published in 1759 (after the author’s death) under the title “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

A philosopher, mathematician and physicist, Émilie du Châtelet was a great figure of the enlightenment. The daughter of Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier, Baron de Breteuil, she received from the latter an education similar to that of her brothers. During her childhood and adolescence in Paris, she learned mathematics, natural philosophy (physics), several languages (Latin, German, ancient Greek), music, etc. In 1734 she became Voltaire’s companion, who was aware of her potential and encouraged her to continue studying science and to contribute to it through her work. She will also participate in the scientific training of the latter.

She took part in scientific discussions after disguising herself as a man to access the Café Gradot in Paris in order to ridicule the rules. Apart from the Paris Academy of Sciences which was forbidden to women, the places of discussion/exchange of famous scientists were the Parisian cafes, also forbidden to women, hence his approach. She also worked with Voltaire on many subjects including the popularization of Newton’s theories which were introduced in France by Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and a memoir on the nature of fire, Voltaire and Émilie did not share the same ideas. Émilie’s memoir became by its very quality the first work written by a woman and published by the Academy. She later embarked on the translation of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, adding at the end an algebraic commentary (calculations made by herself) and a description of the planetary system.


In the book entitled Institutions of Physics, Émilie du Châtelet carries out a comparative analysis and tries to reconcile the physics of René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and the metaphysics of Gottfried Leibniz in order to draw new ideas from physics. This work, originally conceived as a textbook for one son, became the major work of his life and was published in 1740, edited by Prault fils in Paris. Because of her work, she was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Bologna Institute (the only one at that time to admit women) on 1 April 1746.

After her death in 1749, however, Émilie du Châtelet was known for a very long time as Voltaire’s companion and not as the scholar she was. A similar fate was reserved for other female astronomers including Caroline Herschel, who remained for a long time in the shadow of her brother William Herschel.


Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) was born in Hannover, Germany, into a musical family and is the eighth child and fourth daughter of her family. It is reached at the age of 10 years of typhus, which will limit its size to 1.40 meters. Her mother Anna Ilse Moritzen then felt that she would not find a husband and decided that she would become a servant in the family home. His father Isaac Herschel wished her to be educated as a boy in order to be independent later. He, therefore, decided, unbeknownst to his wife, to mix Caroline with the lessons taught to the boys and taught her mathematics, music, and French with his brothers, and trades such as sewing. After her father’s death in 1767, she became the housewife in charge of the family home, before being brought to Bath, England in 1772 by her brother William. There she began a career as a singer, encouraged and trained by William himself a professional musician (organist and titular conductor of the Octagon Chapel in Bath), and became very popular.

Source : wikipedia

William Herschel was also an amateur astronomer and often sought help from his sister (she was his housewife at the time) who would later work with him as an assistant. He taught her mathematics for this purpose. His passion was such that he eventually gave up his profession as a musician to devote himself to astronomy. Caroline assisted him with tasks such as copying astronomical tables, recording data, and designing observation instruments. He became famous after discovering with his sister the planet Uranus which he had first named Georgium Sidus in honor of George III.

After the discovery of Uranus, King George III decided to make William Herschel his personal astronomer. He then moved to Datchet in 1781, entrusting the house to his sister and encouraging him in 1782 to observe alone. She observed numerous celestial objects between 1783 and 1787 and discovered the star cluster NGC 7789 (called the Carolina Rose) and the galaxy NGC 205 (Messier 110), a satellite of the Andromeda galaxy, then discovered 8 comets between 1786 and 1797. In 1797 she produced a Catalogue d'étoiles published by the Royal Society 1798, which corrected the discrepancies in star positions between the observations of William Herschel and those of John Flamsteed. In 1828 she completed her brother’s catalog of nebulae and star clusters, Zones of all the star clusters and nebulae observed by Sir William Herschel.

All this work won him many awards, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society received in 1828 for his work with his brother. In 1835 she was one of the first two women (with Mary Somerville) to be elected honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She also became an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin in 1838.

King George III had decided in 1787 to grant her an annual retribution of £50 for her scientific services as William’s assistant, making her the first woman paid for scientific services. She is therefore the first woman to work as a professional astronomer.

Despite all these distinctions and because of Caroline Herschel’s attachment to her brother William, she remained in his shadow. She suffered from a lack of self-confidence that she developed during her period of servitude following the death of her father. This erasure in front of William and the fact that she is a woman (public opinion still unfavorable to the presence of women in science) are the cause of her near absence in the history of astronomy despite the fact that the latter left her the merit of his work; unlike Alexis Claude Clairaut who had previously omitted to mention the name of Nicole-Reine Lepaute in the list of calculators of the Theory of comets published in 1760 also keeping her in the shadows.

Nicole-Reine Lepaute, née Étable (1723 - 1788) is a French astronomer born in the Palais du Petit Luxembourg in the Stable family, most of whose members served European noble families as valets. Very young she is self-taught and interested in science. In 1749 she married the watchmaker Jean André Lepaute, and through him, she met the astronomer Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande, who in 1753 encouraged Jean André Lepaute (a hard-working watchmaker at the time) to start designing astronomical clocks. This is how Nicole-Reine will make her first steps in the field by calculating the oscillation tables of the pendulum for him.

Then came the time for the return of Halley’s comet, previously predicted by Edmund Halley based on Newton’s laws. Alexis Clairaut and Lalande decide to predict the exact date of the comet’s return based on the approaching solution of Clairaut’s three-body problem. Lalande and Lepaute will take care of the necessary huge calculations, calculating from morning until evening for 6 months (according to Lalande). The return of the comet on finally made on March 13, 1759, a month from the date they had planned (April 13). This is a huge success for the team, which proves that Halley’s hypothesis that comets could return was true but that we could also predict the date of their return. In 1760, however, Clairaut published his Théorie des comètes, omitting to mention the name of Lepaute, influenced by his wife whom he did not want to make jealous by mentioning the name of another in his research. The author is not mentioned at any time in the book although he has made calculations for the prediction of the comet’s return. This act marked the end of the friendship between Lalande and Clairaut.

Page of the Ephemeris for the year 1775

The author also assisted Lalande (making calculations) in his mission to create astronomical ephemerides entrusted to him by the Académie des Sciences in 1759, which was published under the title "The knowledge of the times". She was admitted in 1761 by the Beziers academy.

She once again accompanied Lalande in 1774 in the production of the work Éphémérides, another collection of ephemeris in which Lalande will mention his work, notably Saturn’s calculations for volume 7 and the calculations of the sun, of the moon and planets for volume 8. In 1768 she devoted herself to the training in astronomy and mathematics of her nephew Joseph Lepaute Dagelet, who was elected assistant astronomer in 1785 at the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Nicole-Reine Lepaute, a renowned astronomer of her time, had a rather particular profile compared to Émilie du Châtelet, for example. She was indeed very specialized in calculations and was known as a genius “calculator” by her contemporaries. This is the beginning of an important turning point for the world of astronomy in subsequent periods.

To be continued ...

Written by Bryne T.

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