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The glittering story of the stargazing sisters from Skibbereen

Wednesday, 22nd October, 2014 10:05pm
The glittering story of the stargazing sisters from Skibbereen

By Robert Hume

THIRTY years ago this month, USA launched Challenger, the first spacecraft to carry two women crew. Victorian astronomers, Agnes Clerke and her sister, Ellen – daughters of a Skibbereen bank manager, and both with published books or pamphlets on astronomy bearing their name – would have been intrigued; they may even have booked their places on board.

Although she grew up in the shadow of the Famine, close to two soup kitchens, the younger sister, Agnes, born in 1842, ended her life so famous that a crater on the moon has been named after her.

Their mother, who had been educated at the Ursuline College in Blackrock in the city, attached great value to the education of girls. Not sketching and needlework – the typical pursuits of idle middle-class young ladies – but languages and science. She schooled the girls at home, encouraging them to use the chemistry laboratory upstairs, and the four-inch telescope in the back garden, by which her husband, John, a keen amateur scientist, provided a time service for the town.

Through the telescope, Agnes observed Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. By the age of 11 she had read Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy, and by 15 she was already writing about astronomy. In 1861 the family moved from their grand house on Main Street, Skibbereen, to Dublin, where Mr Clerke had a new job as court registrar. Agnes’s brother Aubrey, youngest of the three siblings, who had a place at Trinity to study mathematics, physics and astronomy, offered to tutor her at home. ‘I had an immense love for the subject, and love begets knowledge,’ she wrote in later life.

At 25, shy, scholarly Agnes travelled under the protection of her more confident and lively elder sister to Florence where the family was used to spending winters. The next ten years they spent studying science and linguistics in the city’s well-resourced public libraries.

Their move to London in 1877 marked the beginning of literary careers for them both: in the case of Agnes, it was to be prolific. Like her sister, she never married, and devoted her life to research. After publishing articles for the Edinburgh Review about the rise of the Mafia (‘Brigandage in Sicily’), and the influence of Copernicus in Italy, she wrote an incredible 159 biographies for the Dictionary of National Biography, and entries on mathematicians and astronomers with a surname between G and L (among them Galieo, Herschel and Kepler) for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Since leaving Ireland, astronomy had made great strides: mathematicians were explaining how gravitational forces cause the sun, moon and planets to move. She kept abreast of these developments by corresponding with one of the leading astronomers of the day, Edward Holden, professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin.

With the publication in 1885 of A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, Agnes became internationally famous as the first scientist to capture public interest in the subject. The work was so thorough and fluently written that it is still the standard text on the subject today.

But she was criticised in her own day by the male establishment of astronomers for collating and summarising the works of others, and doing ‘too little practical work’. This was unjustified: through her three-month stint at the Cape of Good Hope Royal Observatory under the direction of David Gill, Her Majesty’s Astronomer, she had gained sufficient experience to be able to write with authority.

On her return to London, she was offered a job at the Greenwich Royal Observatory, but turned it down, worried by the number of women who had been attacked at night in Greenwich Park.

The System of the Stars, her second book, appeared in 1890. It covered the characteristics of different stars and star groupings, nebulae; and the structure and evolution of the cosmos. Her critical discussion and interpretation received particular praise. One reviewer admired her reverence towards a ‘vision of a Higher Wisdom’ at a time when it had become fashionable ‘to be really afraid to even mention the word God when science is concerned’.

The scope of her books, just like her articles, went well beyond astronomy. Already proficient in Greek, Agnes turned her attention to classical Greek literature ‘as a sort of recreation’, and in 1892 published Familiar Studies in Homer, including an essay abut his dogs and horses.

In 1903 the Royal Astronomical Society appointed her an honorary member, a rank previously held only by two other women, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. The Society was composed of male amateur and professional astronomers able to afford its high membership fees; women were excluded from full membership, and Agnes was not permitted to use its library.

Agnes’s third and last major work, Problems in Astrophysics, was published in the same year.

Brimming with research ideas for future astronomers to tackle, she describes how she had felt ‘driven’ to write it. She was no longer a shy girl: she now had the confidence to arbitrate disputes between young astronomers and some of the great names of the day.

When she died in London in 1907, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen – the woman with a passion for the stars – had become so well respected in her field that her biographer, Mary Brück, felt justified in describing her as ‘a sort of mother figure among astronomers, tactful, kind, helpful’.

Allan Chapman in The Victorian Amateur Astronomer went further: ‘No other single figure has a better case to being considered as the founder of the history of astronomy as a serious, scholarly study’.