Amazing William Herschel

Amazing William Herschel[1]

William Herschel was an extraordinary thinker. Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1738 and trained in music, Herschel was a renaissance man, skilled with the oboe, violin, harpsichord, and organ. He was also drawn to the sciences.

After immigrating to Great Britain age 19, he eventually settled in Bath, England, and explored the heavens with homebuilt reflecting telescopes, aided by his sister Caroline Herschel. In May 12773, he established a regular program off observing in his back garden on New King Street, along with Caroline.

Herschel was a meticulous observer and a careful scientist. Primarily using his 6.2-inch f/13 reflector, he energetically observed hundreds of double stars, and also branched out into observing some of the “fuzzy patches” represented by nebulae.

And then, in his garden on the evening of March 13, 1781, came a momentous event. “In the quartile near Z Tauri the lowest of two is a curious either nebulous star or perhaps a comet,” he wrote. :”A small star follows the comet at 2/3 of the field’s distance.”

Herschel had not found a nebula or a comet, but the blue-green glow of Uranus. After being observed for a prolonged period, and aided by the observations and calculations of others, the strange object was confirmed as a major planet. Herschel called the new object the Georgian Star after King George III, but ultimately the name shifted to Uranus, for the Greek god of the sky Ouranos.

The instant celebrity Herschel grained did not go to his head. He remained a productive, obsessed observer for years after the big discovery, finding and cataloging not only hundreds of double stars but thousands of nebulae, many of which would–a century and a half later—turn out to be galaxies,.

Herschel reminds us that in an increasingly sophisticated world, many of the greatest stories in the history of science resulted from simple endurance, and a love of nature.

[1] David J. Eicher, “The Amazing William Herschel,” Astronomy (45, 6, June 2017, p. 8

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