An Imperfect Account of a Comet is an audiovisual installation by Lynda Laird celebrating the celestial discoveries of the 18th century astronomer Caroline Herschel.
The work is presented as 560 photographic glass plates of stars that Herschel noticed were missing from the British Star Catalogue, and serves to bring these 'omitted’ stars to light. As such, they represent the many women whose groundbreaking knowledge and wisdom has been overlooked, undervalued, and ignored throughout history.
During her lifetime, Herschel also discovered 8 comets and 14 nebulae, which are acknowledged in an accompanying sound composition, 8 Comets by Annie Needham and Phil Tomsett. This musical and spoken word piece is structured according to the precise charted orbits of the comets and is interspersed with words from Herschel’s private journals and observational writings.
As a child, Caroline Herschel developed typhus, an illness that stunted her growth and left her blind in one eye, convincing her mother she would never marry and that a formal education would be a waste. She was destined to become a servant, yet through her own interest, dedicated observation, and desire to help her scholarly brothers, ended up a pioneer in the field of astronomy. Caroline made significant discoveries and contributions to the field but as her writings make apparent, she struggled to gain the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, and her formidable achievements have not enjoyed the same legacy as that of her male counterparts, including her own family members. A large part of Caroline’s time was spent supporting her brother William in his astronomical endeavours, noting in her memoirs ‘I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, I did what he commanded me’. As well as directing her energies towards accepted feminine pursuits of needlework and musical appreciation, she pursued her intellectual life by ‘minding the heavens’, absorbed in a world of astronomy and discovery.
Against the odds, she was one of the first women to receive a salary working in science, the first woman (alongside Mary Somerville) to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the first woman to publish scientific findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. In pursuing a career in science during a period when it was practically unheard of for a woman to do so, Caroline challenged societal norms and helped carve out a path for other women to follow.