Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel.
On Tuesday March 13th 1781, the organist, composer, conductor and music teacher William Herschel was outside his house on New King Street in Bath, one of the fashionable spa resorts of eighteenth-century England. As was often the case, Herschel was observing the heavens with one of his home-built telescopes. But Herschel was no ordinary amateur astronomer. What caught his attention on this evening was what he described as a "curious either Nebulous Star or perhaps a Comet." The object, which had been observed at various times by other astronomers without them distinguishing its odd nature, was neither a nebulous star or a comet, but rather the first planet to be discovered in recorded history. It was a sensational catch.
The planet would come to be known as Uranus, but for Herschel it was Georgium Sidus, or George's star, named in honour of George III. Royal patronage soon followed the find and Herschel happily abandoned his musical life. He became a full-time astronomer and the builder of the most powerful telescopes in the world.
As Michael Hoskin explains in Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel, Herschel's grand project and the ultimate object of his observations was the "Construction of the Heavens." Herschel therefore sought to understand the arrangement of our own star system, the Milky Way, as well as the arrangement and development of other star systems. He also set out quite self consciously to be a natural historian of the heavens, to collect astronomical "specimens," to catalogue them, and to search for and speculate on possible linkages. Such views separated him from professional astronomers for whom the stars provided a background "grid" against which the motions of the members of the solar system could be plotted and then interpreted in terms of Newton's law of universal gravitation. At the same time as some students of the Earth were advancing ideas of "deep time," Herschel was fascinated by, and pioneered the study of, "deep space."
Herschel's astronomical labours were greatly aided by his sister Caroline, a notable astronomer in her own right who discovered 8 comets (maybe the true number is really 9, Hoskin suggests) and whose observations of nebulae--visible as faint, fuzzy and mysterious patches of light in the sky--in the early 1780s persuaded her brother that here was a rich field of study indeed. Before William began his systematic sweeps of the heavens for nebulae, around 100 such objects were known. By the time he and Caroline had done they had catalogued over two-and-a-half thousand of them.
William Herschel's remarkable career has drawn a number of biographers, including the outstanding historian of nineteenth century astronomy Agnes Clerke. But far and away the most prolific and insightful historian of the careers of both William and Caroline Herschel has been Michael Hoskin. The leading Herschel scholar for over 50 years, Hoskin has mined the extensive Herschel papers to great effect. Among Hoskin's works are William Herschel and the Construction of the Heavens (1963, but recently reissued in a new edition), The Herschel Partnership: As Viewed by Caroline (2003), an edited volume that contains Caroline Herschel's two incomplete autobiographies (2003), and biographical studies of William and Caroline's parents plus their siblings in Tha Herschels of Hanover (2007):
Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel is in effect a joint biography although most of Hoskin's attention is devoted to William. Two of the 13 chapters focus on William's only child, John, and the results of the obligation John felt to complete his father's reviews of the heavens by taking a rebuilt version of William's most successful telescope to South Africa to sweep the southern skies.
The book is aimed beyond the academic market and is organized chronologically. Each chapter centres on a particular time period and the two shortest cover the events of just over two years (1781-83). The first of these chapters starts with a section on "The Planet as Bait for a King" and details the negotiations and manoeuvres to obtain royal patronage that followed in the wake of the discovery of Uranus, the successful outcome of which transformed William's and Caroline's lives.
Hoskin's William Herschel is no unblemished saint answering to the muse of astronomy alone. Instead, Hoskin convincingly portrays William as a brilliant telescope builder, observer and theorist of the heavens, but who was also very ambitious and when "his ambitions were threatened, his thoughts were for himself" (p. 68).
The consequences of royal patronage are also examined well. For example, Herschel's biggest telescope was a giant with a metal mirror some 48 inches in diameter that sat in a tube over 40 feet long. It was, however, an extremely cumbersome instrument and, in the last analysis, a serious failure, a point that William felt unable to concede in public as its construction had been made possible by a great deal of money from George III.
William and Caroline Herschel have long been key figures for historians of astronomy, but in recent years the Herschels have also been introduced to a broader audience. Two of the 10 chapters of Richard Holmes's critically acclaimed The Age of Wonder (2008), for example, centre on William Herschel. Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel springs from the findings of a lifetime of scholarly endeavour by Michael Hoskin. Accessible and brightly written in a very fluent style as well as splendidly illustrated (the book contains 15 colour plates), it will bring the Herschels and their remarkable lives to still wider attention.
Robert W. Smith
University of Alberta
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|Author:||Smith, Robert W.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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