The Serenity of the Sage, Innocence of a Child

Bath in the 18th century had a lot of famous visitors, but one of the most important residents was William Herschel, who, with his sister Caroline, made huge contributions to early astronomy. But just as important, though in different ways, was William’s only child, John, described by the famous astronomer Patrick Moore as having made immense contributions to science. This is from Moore’s book on him:

“He was the first to make a systematic deep-sky survey of the far southern stars; earlier attempts – notably by Edmund Halley – had been made with very limited equipment, whereas John Herschel used a fine 20-foot reflector. He was a pioneer in the new science of photography, and he made major advances in optics. In addition he was a noted popularizer of science, and his book Outlines of Astronomy was (and still is) considered as something of a classic”.

John was born at Slough, after his father had discovered Uranus, and becoming a favourite of King George III and married into a wealthy family, so could devote much of his time to astronomy. But this meant John lived in an isolated area, his father often nocturnal so had to be quiet during the day, but with many visitors interested in astronomy.

He was educated briefly at nearby Eton, but then moved to a private school, and spent a lot of time with his aunt Caroline. He went on trips with his parents, and in Paris met Napoleon Bonaparte. At 17 he went ot Cambridge and became close friends with Charles Babbage, and with George Peacock founded what became the Analytical Society, with the intention to promote Continental theories of mathematics rather than the outdated notions of Newton.  He became the university’s most accomplished prize winner at mathematics, winning the Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal in 1812, and graduated top of his class ahead of his friends Peacock and Babbage,who was a fore runner of computer programming.

It says much about the demands of local vicars that William wanted his son to become a cleric in order to have an income and time to pursue his scientific work, but instead he began to study law from 1814. but only stayed fro 18 months. He became friends with Sir James South, ‘a brilliant though irascible amateur astronomer’ and an optical researcher, W. H Wollaston. He  missed getting the chair of Chemistry at Cambridge, settling for  a post as tutor, but complained that he ‘spent 8 to 10 or 12 hours a day examining 60 or 70 blockheads, not one in ten of whom knows his right hand from his left, and not one in 10 of whom knows anything but what is in the book… In a word, I have grown fat, dull and stupid… ‘

But his father was by then old and frail, with much of his work incomplete, so John moved back to slough to collaborate with South observing systematically double stars. They worked from March 1821 to December 1823, publishing their work in the 1824 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, winning them the Lalande Prize from the French Academy of Sciences.

In 1820, Herschel South and Babbage and others formed a new society devoted to astronomy, but Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society showed an unusual lack of generosity by opposing what he saw as a rival group, but in time this became the Royal Astronomical Society which still exists.

Like many of his age, Herschel was interested in a wide range of subjects, and made beautiful botanical drawings, studied electromagnetism, and, linked to his own work and that of his father, the science of optics. He supported the theory that light was a wave, as opposed to the Newtonian view that it was made up of particles. He traveled widely in Europe, often with his friend Babbage, and met many of the top scientists of his age.

By 1824 his father had died and his aunt returned to Hanover, though he still made observations at their home in Slough, where his mother continued. But he was suffering from overwork, and too many sleepless nights, causing concern to his many friends. He married Margaret, a woman half his age, which proved to be happy and produced 12 children, including a son Alexander who continued the Herschel passion with the stars.  John produced two major catalogues between 1825 and 1833, much of which was based on work by his father, but he extended it by discovering many more nebulae and made many measurements of double stars. He also provided many wonderful drawings. In 1831 he became a knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order, so became Sir John., but he was frustrated that as long as he stayed in Europe, the southern heavens remained unmapped. So when his mother died in 1832 he and his family sailed for the Cape of Good Hope. On 16 January 1834 he set up his telescope at Feldhausen, 6 miles from Cape Town where he was warmly welcomed. By the staff at the CapeObservatory, especially its director Sir Thomas Maclear. . He described his time there as the most productive of his life, with him scouring the heavens every clear night. His review of the heavens included: ‘He catalogued 1707 nebulae, of which 1268 were new; he listed 2102 binary pairs; he made the best hand-drawn map of the Large Cloud of Magellan,’ and many other objects, He made estimates of the luminosities of some stars such as Alpha Centauri, which proved to be accurate. He updated the observations of his father on the satellites of Saturn, made observations of the sun, and of Halley’s comet, but perhaps his most important and long lasting legacy was as the father of southern hemisphere astronomy, with his extensive sweeping and mapping of the heavens..

But he also found time to collect and draw many rare plants, and like his father, was a skilled musicians, and became active in local society playing violin and flute. He left in March 1838, and the sport where his telescope stood is now marked by an obelisk, the scope itself now on display at Greenwich.

Back in England, queen Victoria made him a baronet, and he spent years writing up his observations, for which he received the Copley Medal in 1847 for the second time. But his career in observations was largely over. He did discover the bright red star Betelgeuse in 1840, so Tim Burton owes much to him. He became interested in photography, discovering the chemical to fix silver on the plates, and coined the terms positive and negatives for prints; he may also have coined the term photography itself. He was marginally involved in the discovery of the planet Neptune, the ‘planetness’ of which is still in dispute for some people. He published ‘Outlines of Astronomy in 1849 which remained n print till 1902. He spent a time as Master of the Mint, a post also held by Newton, and which he seemed to have similarly disliked.

In 1840 he moved to a large house in Kent, and from 1856 he became a recluse, though he kept busy. With his catalogue of all double stars, giving lectures at the local school and translating the Iliad. He died there in 1871, aged 79, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. . His friend Charles Pritchard described him : ‘his was a life full of the serenity of the sage, and the docile innocence of a child’

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