Reading guide for The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin

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The Blind Astronomer's Daughter

by John Pipkin

The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin X
The Blind Astronomer's Daughter by John Pipkin
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 480 pages
    Sep 2017, 480 pages

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Lisa Butts

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Compare and contrast the experiences of Caroline Herschel and Siobhan Ainsworth. Both women are considered outcasts due to their gender and physical disabilities. How do they each overcome their disadvantages? Explore the many similarities in their stories and how their common experiences shape them as women and as scientists. In what ways does Caroline Herschel serve as a foil for Siobhan?
  2. Pipkin delves into the struggle and invisibility of women in science by examining the true story of Caroline Herschel and the fictional accounts of Siobhan Ainsworth and the Seven Sisters. How were each of these women erased and/or celebrated by their male counterparts? Discuss the irony of the Seven Sisters' world-renowned mirror business and what it exposes about the industry of science. In your opinion, has society's attitude toward female scientists changed or continued to be exclusionary?
  3. Each section of the novel is named for a stage of planetary orbit. When cautioning Arthur, McPherson notes that "The past is a mirror to the future" (78). Explore how the cyclical movement of a planet in orbit can be found metaphorically throughout the novel. How do Finn and Siobhan seem to orbit each other? Are there other characters who fall into orbit with one another? How do locations such as New Park serve as the focal point of multiple orbits? Provide an example of how a section title serves to foreshadow or describe the chapter's events.
  4. In order to pass his time in Dublin, Finn begins to serve the helpless by fashioning aids for their ailments. His prized possession is the elaborate brace he devises to revive Siobhan's weak hand. At first, Siobhan would have nothing to do with Finn's invention because it brought back traumatic memories of being experimented upon in childhood. Refusing to wear it, she resolves that "she would not have [Finn] regard her as a damaged clockwork. . . she would fit herself to no man's design" (359). And yet, the brace improves her movement so well that it becomes a prized possession. In your opinion, is Finn's compulsion to fix Siobhan a harmful or generous quality? Can it be both?
  5. Discuss the novel's treatment of order and randomness. Herschel thinks, "There is no randomness to it, just as there is nothing random in the slow turn of night and day. To the well-prepared mind, he tells them, the world presents no accidents, only patterns yet to be recognized" (60). Lord Camden is lauded for his commitment to governmental order, Mr. McPherson is fiercely defensive of the order of power, and Caroline and Siobhan are both taught to take precise and orderly calculations of the stars' movement. But randomness prevails as well: Finn's random letters miraculously reach Siobhan, and astronomers still rely on a serendipitous moment of discovery. In your opinion, does the novel argue that the universe is guided by order or randomness? Are there moments in the novel where randomness is embraced, and when?
  6. Discuss William Herschel's theory: ". . . every object of mass throughout the universe not only draws other bodies to itself, but repels what it attracts. This repulsive power is just as necessary for the survival of matter as is the force of attraction. Without the latter. . . we would not be, and without the former, we would not be as we are" (223). Throughout the novel, Finn and Siobhan manage to both attract and repel each other—each at times pulling the other close and then being swept away. How does this adversity impact them? Are they ever discouraged? Why or why not? Explain the meaning of Herschel's last line. How are repulsive powers necessary for survival? How do the forces that attract you make you who you are?
  7. Two of the novel's greatest struggles are rooted in the concept of ownership. Arthur Ainsworth drives himself mad with jealousy and defeat when he cannot find the planet he has already named as his own. Ireland is plunged into warfare over the dispute between who rightfully owns its soil. Owen hears the mantra: "Let these English landlords stare at the heavens all they want, for they will no longer possess the land beneath our feet" (160). What are the parallels between these disparate types of ownership? How does the desire to claim ownership cause conflict throughout the book? Are there characters who seek to own nothing? If so, who?
  8. Explore the significance of maps and atlases throughout the novel. James is convinced that ". . . no man would ever trust a map drawn by one who has never set his foot where he has cast his eye" (429). Compare James's quote with the ideology of Arthur's father: "Men who watch the sky. . . do so only to convince us that things are not as they appear" (24). Arthur's blind sketches appear manic, but together they become the atlas that leads Siobhan to the furthest edge of the known universe. James's drawings, though thinly informed, convince Siobhan to select him as a travel companion. Are maps purely objective, or can they be informed by one's experience? Do maps of the sky ruin its beauty or enhance it? 9. Arthur, Siobhan, and Caroline all believe they can see the ghosts of their loved ones reflected in the sky. Explore the significance of these apparitions. Who appears to each character, and why? What do these ghosts help illuminate about each astronomer's motive for searching the skies? In your opinion, what is similar about a ghost and a star?
  9. Finn is a natural fixer. He is fascinated by "how each part turn[s] in concert with the others, large and small, no piece indispensable, nothing useful on its own" (234). Forced to flee from New Park with his ailing parents, Finn is finally given the opportunity to master the art of mending and open up his sidewalk business in Edinburgh as the "FIXER OF SMALL OBJEX." How does Finn's interest in minutia mirror or compliment Siobhan's interest in astronomy? Unexpectedly, his talents lead him to an interest in the controversial science of galvanic energy. To an outsider, it seems as if he can resurrect the dead. How does Finn use this power to his advantage and how to does it change the course of his life?
  10. Driven insane by the desire to see as far into the depths of the universe as possible, Arthur Ainsworth blinds himself by aiming his powerful telescope at the sun. While Siobhan is horrified, Arthur is strangely at peace. He muses, "They would not understand if he told them that with his eyes extinguished he sees more now than they can imagine. . . the ghosts and phantoms of things still to be discovered and understood and mapped" (7). Considering Arthur's arduous career as an astronomer, discuss his motives for blinding himself. Is it purely jealousy? What kinds of things does Arthur believe he can see better now without the distraction of sight? If Arthur feels more content in darkness, why would he kill himself?
  11. "Sometimes he feels certain that if men could but be made to hold still and think at length on the vast incomprehensibility of creation, wars would cease altogether" (60). Discuss the significance of this quote throughout the novel. Why would reckoning with the universe bring about peace? Conversely, what statement is Herschel making about the cause of war? Discuss the relationship between this quote and the Irish rebellion. How could the philosophy of astronomy quell the distress of Ireland's disenfranchised?
  12. Time is precious for astronomers. William Herschel is furious whenever he feelsthat his time has been wasted. To him, "Time lost to pointless delay can never be regained. It is the most reprehensible kind of theft" (61). Arthur and Siobhan battle time as well: he seeks to "secure fame's immortality" (5) in order to outlast his short life, and by the time Siobhan reaches Rome, she is convinced that a minor miscalculation has caused her to mistake the new planet's orbit, making it unviewable until 1972. How does each astronomer balance the urgency of his or her discoveries with the incomprehensibly vast lifetime of the galaxy? How does their unique relationship to time set them apart from ordinary citizens?
  13. When Finn is swept up by the Irish resistance, Siobhan isentirely certain that he will return and together they will find the planet her father had hunted for so long. She thinks, ". . . there had never been any chance that they might have done otherwise, for no single body—no matter the force of will—can resist the pull of the universe"(364). But although Finn has the opportunity, he never returns from the battlefield. When deciding whether to go into the deadly battle of New Ross, he "tells himself that he will not. And then he does"(344).In your opinion, what overrides Finn's desire to return to Siobhan? How does his decision complicate Siobhan's understanding of their destiny and the strength of a greater power? Discuss how Finn's presumed death challenges the novel's commitment to order and orbit.
  14. Though James and Siobhan consider each other to be unlikely companions, they are more similar than they might believe. At the end of the novel, they find themselves in Italy, having traveled hundreds of miles from their comfortable lives in pursuit of disparate dreams: Siobhan hopes to finally glimpse the planet her father fervently sought, and James is finally fulfilling his goal of escaping Ireland.In what ways are they similar or different? In what ways are their personalities complimentary? Do you consider them to be an unlikely pair? Discuss how Caroline Herschel has influenced both of their journeys.

Recommended reading:
Woodsburner: A Novel by John Pipkin
The Comet Seekers: A Novel by Helen Sedgwick
By Gaslight: A Novel by Steven Price
Mercury: A Novel by Margot Livesey
Behold the Dreamers: A Novel by Imbolo Mbue

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Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Bloomsbury USA. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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