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Passion vs. Obsession in The Blind Astronomer's Daughter

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Setting a story about astronomy in 18th-century Ireland seems odd at the very least. That's until you talk with author John Pipkin, who'll clue you in on the history of the era. 

"It does seem an unlikely location for a story about astronomy. Not only in terms of the socioeconomic aspect, but also people think of clouds and rain and how could you practice astronomy in that part of the world," says the author of The Blind Astronomer's Daughter. "But there were a couple things going on. Much of what characterized the British control of Ireland at this time was the process of settlement and plantation. A number of wealthy British aristocrats had been given parcels of land in Ireland. Astronomy, like many other sciences of the time, weren’t really seen as rigorous academic disciplines. Astronomy was more likely to be the hobby of the wealthy."

In other words, it was the rich who had the money to build observatories and the discretionary time to spend long hours gazing at the stars and recording their observations. "We didn't even have the word 'scientist' yet," Pipkin adds. 

Pipkin, a professor of creative writing and literature at Southwestern University in Georgetown and author of the well-respected Woodsburner (2009), centers his historical fiction story set in Ireland on Caroline Ainsworth, the foundling daughter of astronomer Arthur Ainsworth, who is English but has land in Ireland.  

As she works alongside her father in that day’s space race – the discovery of new planets – she sees his passion become obsession, as he discards even the most rudimentary protections to stare directly at the sun and heavens and ultimately destroys his eyesight. Following his death, she must decide whether to continue his work or forge a new path for himself.

Pipkin had the idea for this novel for a long time, but set it aside for Woodsburner, a story about Hemry David Thoreau. It was on a visit to Austin's Harry Ransom Center that he discovered a corner room that had a large collection of astronomical equipment and a whole collection of papers from William Herschel, who, in 1781, working with his sister and fellow astronomer Caroline Herschel, discovered the planet Uranus. Suddenly the size of our solar system, which had been thought to end with Saturn, doubled, says Pipkin, who incorporated the real Herschels into his story.

Pipkin, who got his graduate degree from Rice University and is coming to Houston for a book signing and reading, says he’s been interested in astronomy since he was a kid and set this book when he did because: “This is the moment when modern astronomy is born. Prior to this time, astronomers knew there were things they hadn’t figured out about the heavens. They hadn’t realized if they turned on powerful telescopes they would find things that they didn’t know were there.”

John Pipkin will be reading from his book at  7 p.m. Tuesday, October 11 at the Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-523-0701 or visit brazosbookstore.com.

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