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Discoverers of the Universe

Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel

Michael Hoskin
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Discoverers of the Universe
    Book Description:

    Discoverers of the Universetells the gripping story of William Herschel, the brilliant, fiercely ambitious, emotionally complex musician and composer who became court astronomer to Britain's King George III, and of William's sister, Caroline, who assisted him in his observations of the night sky and became an accomplished astronomer in her own right. Together, they transformed our view of the universe from the unchanging, mechanical creation of Newton's clockmaker god to the ever-evolving, incredibly dynamic cosmos that it truly is.

    William was in his forties when his amateur observations using a homemade telescope led to his discovery of Uranus, and an invitation to King George's court. He coined the term "asteroid," discovered infrared radiation, was the first to realize that our solar system is moving through space, discovered 2,500 nebulae that form the basis of the catalog astronomers use today, and was unrivalled as a telescope builder. Caroline shared William's passion for astronomy, recording his observations during night watches and organizing his papers for publication. She was the first salaried woman astronomer in history, a pioneer who herself discovered nine comets and became a role model for women in the sciences.

    Written by the world's premier expert on the Herschels,Discoverers of the Universetraces William and Caroline's many extraordinary contributions to astronomy, shedding new light on their productive but complicated relationship, and setting their scientific achievements in the context of their personal struggles, larger-than-life ambitions, bitter disappointments, and astonishing triumphs.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3812-7
    Subjects: History, History of Science & Technology, Astronomy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Preface
    (pp. IX-XII)
  5. The Herschel Family
    (pp. XIII-XVIII)
  6. PROLOGUE August 1772: The Partnership Convenes
    (pp. 1-5)

    On Monday, August 24, 1772, after two days and two nights of misery, the seasick passengers on the packet boat from Holland at last reached dry land on England’s east coast.¹ Out to sea, their ship lay at anchor, half-wrecked, its mainmast broken by the storm. The passengers had had to be “thrown like balls” on the shore by burly sailors from a small open boat.

    One of them was the twenty-two-year-old Carolina Lucretia Herschel (figure 1) from Hanover in Germany. Carolina, or Caroline as she became known, was unprepossessing—tiny, well under five feet in height, and her face...

  7. 1 1707–1773: A Musician’s Odyssey
    (pp. 6-27)

    William’s early life in Hanover had not been easy. Despite Isaac’s absences for military service, he succeeded in fathering ten children; of the ten, four sons and two daughters survived into adulthood.¹ Isaac was a poorly paid bandsman in the Hanoverian Guards; but he did what he could to supplement the basic education offered his children by the Garrison School, which consisted of reading, writing, and religious knowledge to the age of fourteen for both boys and girls, and for the boys, arithmetic. William later recorded how “my father’s great attachment to Music determined him to endeavour to make all...

  8. 2 1773–1778: Vocations in Conflict
    (pp. 28-43)

    Unfortunately, by the spring of 1773 William was becoming obsessed with astronomy.¹ For some months past he had owned a copy of Robert Smith’s two-volumeOpticks, with its detailed account of how to make telescopes and its summary of what might be seen with the completed instruments. When he returned home of an evening, exhausted from up to twelve hours of music making, he would retire to his room with some milk or sago and spend much of the night reading Smith; and at breakfast Alexander would be expected to listen to a lecture on astronomy. One morning, the patient...

  9. 3 1779–1781: An Enthusiasm Shared
    (pp. 44-56)

    By this time William had made the acquaintance of the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne had been visiting a Bath friend, who thought his guest would be interested to meet the eccentric musician about whom everyone was talking. There followed what Caroline—who had not been introduced to their visitor—remembered as “several hours spiritted conversation,” and she feared the men were quarrelling. But after William had seen Maskelyne to the door, he turned to Caroline with satisfaction and declared their future ally to be “a Deavil of a fellow.” Other visitors to the Herschel home included Charles Blagden, later...

  10. 4 1781–1782: Royal Patronage
    (pp. 57-68)

    Not surprisingly, William’s discovery of a planet made Herthel, Hertschel, Hertsthel, Hermstel, Herrschell, or perhaps even Mersthel¹ (no one seemed sure how to spell the name of this new arrival on the astronomical scene) famous throughout Europe. On May 2, 1781, he was an honored guest of Maskelyne’s at Greenwich, on an evening when the viewing was particularly good; and in November 1781 the Royal Society awarded him their prestigious Copley Medal (Bath was in season, and so he traveled by the night coach to London to receive the award at 11 a.m. the following morning). A few days later...

  11. 5 1782–1783: “Astronomer to his Majesty”
    (pp. 69-81)

    For several days in late July a wagon stood outside the Herschel home in New King Street, Bath, while their possessions were loaded onto it. Not the least of their problems was the great pole that supported the 20-foot reflector. But by the evening of the twenty-ninth, the job was finished, and at two the following morning the wagon set off from Bath for Datchet. Nine hours later William boarded the London coach, which stopped for the night at one of the many coaching inns in the Speenhamland district of Newbury, halfway between Bath and London. The next afternoon the...

  12. 6 1783–1785: The Construction of the Heavens
    (pp. 82-107)

    On arrival at Datchet, William had faced a number of problems, and one of these was how to keep Caroline usefully occupied. Her career as a solo singer had been abruptly terminated, and she no longer had choirs to train; in fact she had nothing to do beyond managing their little household. Was it possible that she could be coaxed into sharing her brother’s passion for astronomy? William had tried to teach her the constellations on their journey across Holland on their way from Hanover, and at Bath he had made her a modest reflector, although there is no record...

  13. 7 1782–1790: “One of the Greatest Mechanics of his Day”
    (pp. 108-128)

    Caroline’s anxiety as to how they would manage in Datchet on £200 a year would have grown to little short of panic if she had realized how much the wide-aperture telescopes that William was planning would cost, for only reflectors with great “light gathering power” could bring into view the distant and faint components of the construction of the heavens. The large 20-foot was commissioned a year after their arrival at their new home, and William had paid every penny out of the savings he had accumulated in Bath. But the Herschel household could not sustain a negative cash flow...

  14. 8 1786–1788: “Gold Can Glitter as Well as the Stars”
    (pp. 129-137)

    When William and Caroline moved to the Grove in April 1786, they found themselves living a stone’s throw from their landlady, Elizabeth, widow of Adee Baldwin. Adee was the grandson of William Baldwin, who in 1701 had been granted a long lease on the Crown Inn that stood on the corner of Windsor Road and the Great West Road, and the son of Thomas Baldwin, who had instituted the first daily coach between London and Bath. The coach had evidently proved a gold mine. At the time of his death Adee not only leased the Crown Inn but also owned...

  15. 9 1788–1798: “Noble and Worthy Priestess of the New Heavens”
    (pp. 138-145)

    A fortnight after William’s wedding on May 8, 1788, he and Caroline resumed their nighttime sweeps for nebulae. These were now less frequent, for reasons we can all understand, and so Caroline’s duties as amanuensis were much reduced. In the daytime the Herschel home was a building site, with the construction of the 40-foot in full swing, and in this Caroline had no part. And she was no longer mistress of his household, with responsibility for managing the servants and keeping track of the expenditure. Instead, she was a spinster living on her own in the adjoining cottage, with a...

  16. Color Plates
    (pp. None)
  17. 10 1788–1810: “The Most Celebrated of All the Astronomers of the Universe”
    (pp. 146-157)

    While William was courting Mary, a letter arrived at Slough from Jérôme de Lalande in Paris. It was addressed “A Monsieur Herschel, le plus célèbre de tous les astronomes de l’univers, Windsor.”¹ Monsieur Herschel had been a professional astronomer for just four years and nine months.

    “A knowledge of the construction of the heavens,” William later wrote, “has always been the ultimate object of my observations.” By the end of the 1780s he had published three great papers in which he explored the cosmos, portraying it not as the unchanging mechanism of God the Clockmaker, but as an arena in...

  18. 11 1792–1822: The Torch Is Handed On
    (pp. 158-185)

    On March 9, 1792, Mary gave birth to a son, John. At last the spinster Caroline had a nephew on whom she could dote and toward whom she would one day admit to feeling “motherly.”¹ Paul Pitt, Mary’s surviving son,² wrote to William expressing pleasure “on the birth of a son to you and a brother to me,”³ but within a year Paul died, probably of tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was then termed). John would always regret being deprived in this way of the companionship of an elder brother. Caroline believed that John had narrowly escaped a similar fate,...

  19. 12 1822–1833: John’s “Sacred Duty”
    (pp. 186-196)

    John had sacrificed his chosen career in Cambridge for what he would later describe as his “sacred duty” of completing his father’s work. But around the time of William’s death, John was often to be found in London. He was already a recognized member of the scientific establishment, deeply involved in the affairs of both the long-established Royal Society and the infant Astronomical Society of London, which he had helped to found and of which William had been the nominal first president. Another reason for his absences in London lay in James South’s precision telescopes, which were ideal for the...

  20. 13 1833–1848: “The Completion of My Father’s Work”
    (pp. 197-208)

    The major limitation of John’s 1833 catalogue was stated in its title: the observations were “made at Slough.” It was time for John (plate 12) to extend William’s work to the skies below the horizon at Slough. He had not been able to consider leaving for the Southern Hemisphere as long as his aged mother depended on him for emotional support, but Mary had died in January 1832. Not only that, but—except for legacies totaling no more than £2,000¹—she had left her entire estate to John. This would easily allow him to meet the expenses of transporting his...

  21. Abbreviations
    (pp. 209-210)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 211-222)
  23. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 223-224)

    The published works of William Herschel, with one minor exception, appeared in the Royal Society’sPhilosophical Transactions.They were assembled, together with the text of the many unpublished papers that William read to the Bath Philosophical Society, by the indefatigable J. L. E. Dreyer and published in two quarto volumes with the titleThe Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel(London, 1912). Dreyer supplies a lengthy introduction that is all the more valuable in being by an experienced astronomical observer and skilled historian who had privileged access to Herschel manuscripts.

    The bulk of the scientific manuscripts of William, Caroline, and...

  24. Further Reading
    (pp. 225-228)
  25. Index
    (pp. 229-237)