Astronomer, Musician, Hero…Deserter?

Sir Frederick William Herschel is one of the most well-known and highly regarded historical astronomers but many may not know or realise there was more to his genius than his passion for astronomy. So it seems a closer look is required to try and map out the life of such a notable historical figure.

image of William_Herschel

William Herschel, German-British astronomer (image credit: via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany on 15 November 1738. His father, Issac Herschel was a genius in his own right but devoted his life to the study and practice of music and this is where Herschel’s exceptional life begins. Obviously like any father, Isaac taught Hershel, as well as his other siblings the art of music and helped and encouraged a passion for it to grow in them such as it did for him! Unfortunately of the ten brothers and sisters Herschel had, only six made it into adult life with four dying at very young ages. But this made them that much closer, especially Herschel and his sister Caroline.

Hershel’s mind began its expansion, as stated before, within the field of music and undoubtedly, he excelled in it, joining his father in the Hanover Military Band. But there was a short break in his budding musical career when he joined the army at the outbreak of the Seven Years War. Now, William Herschel remains to this day a highly respected astronomer and musician, but arguably not so much a solider. After the particularly disastrous Battle of Hastenbeck in which he was not wounded, but had spent many nights in the cold damp conditions of trenches, he decided soldiering was not for him. Essentially he committed the act of desertion! We do have to remember he was merely a teenage boy so his fear and actions may seem more understandable with hindsight. Nevertheless some historians and biographers ignore this little blip in Herschel’s early years or brush over the circumstances of his military departure to keep his memory untainted, but in my opinion it gives more insight into the mind of the astronomical genius.

He successfully evaded detection and made it to the shores of England. His first few years in England were a struggle until the age of 22, when he was made organist in the parish church of Halifax.  It was nothing but up for Herschel from then on. He was made organist at the fashionable and well regarded parish at Bath and it is here he would make his most noted discovery!

 

A 1829 portrait of Caroline Herschel (Image credit: Agnes Clerke's The Herschels and Modern Astronomy (1895))

 

Behind the scenes of these musical achievements and progression Herschel’s mathematic and astronomical mind was continuously growing. His sister, Caroline Herschel was to be his devoted assistant throughout his life and earn herself quite a notable career in astronomy herself. A touching characteristic about Herschel is that he was also devoted to Caroline and after his father’s death he returned to Hanover to take his sister back to Bath with him, as theirmother didn’t care for education and poor Caroline was to spend her days being a maid! So Herschel essentially, became his little sister’s “knight in shining armour” and opened her life up to greatness, eventually becoming the first paid female astronomer!

Herschel initially flirted with astronomy as a past-time and began making and selling his very own telescopes. The first large telescope he created was a 1.8m Gregorian reflector in 1773 and over the next decade Herschel would use these telescopes of his own creation to earn some extra income and leave his many marks in history.

Over the next decade Herschel, with the assistance of Caroline began observing and surveying the phenomenon of double stars. They even went on to publish three different catalogues of their findings in 1782, 1785 and 1821. But it was during these hours of research and surveying that Herschel, alongside Caroline, made his most noted discovery!

On 13 March 1781 Hershel discovered the first planet since antiquity and he wanted to call it “Georgium Sidus,” (George’s Star) after King George III! Herschel did not name the planet Uranus, it was actually a man named Johann Elert Bode, a German astronomer who proposed the name of the planet be changed to Uranus to conform to the other planetary names being that of mythological origin. But more than likely it had more to do with the planet being named after an English king!

None the less, King George enjoyed the brief idea of a planet being named after him and this flattery induced him to make Herschel the ‘Court Astronomer,’ a position which came with a very handsome £200 per annum! Herschel could now quit flirting with his passion for astronomy and completely immerse himself within it.

Uranus was the beginning of Herschel’s discoveries and observations. In 1786 he moved to Slough and constructed a new 20 foot long telescope, which no doubt aided his claim in 1797 that he saw ‘rings’ around Uranus. For two centuries Herschel’s observation was dismissed until an experiment in 1977 confirmed it to be true and Herschel, if he were alive, would get the last laugh!

Image of Uranus and its rings

Herschel's Last Laugh: the rings of Uranus (plus some of its moons) show up clearly in this particularly psychedelic false-colour image from the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

 

As mentioned earlier Herschel was initially and continuously studying the phenomenon of double stars and indeed he made, yet another amazing discover. He discovered that these double where not just coincidentally side by side but rather physically linked binary star systems, thus for the first time, proving Isaac Newton’s Law of Gravitation was universal.

Another of Herschel’s major discoveries was that of infrared radiation. In the year 1800 whilst observing the sun, Hershel became very interested in the heat that passed through the colour spectrum. So he set up and experiment using a glass prism and light, to which he found that the temperature increased in the spectrum from violet to red. But he continued the experiment to beyond the red of the spectrum, to what he called “calorific rays” and discovered it was even warmer. Today this is called infrared and it is used in many exciting and revealing ways in our lives, from medical uses to expanding our universal knowledge.

image of enceladus

Enceladus, an icy Saturnian moon with subsurface water. In this image the moon's surface is mainly illuminated by sunlight reflected off its primary. (Image credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA; Colour Composite: Gordan Ugarkovic)

 

Hershel also discovered various moons in our solar system including Titania and Oberon that orbit Uranus, and in 1789, after building his biggest telescope, (40ft long with a 48 inch mirror) he discovered Enceladus and Mimas circling Saturn. Thanks to this monster telescope of the time, Herschel discovered even more objects in deep space including nebulae and star clusters, and along with Caroline he went on to catalogue and document around 5000 objects improving on Messier’s catalogue of a mere 100 or so! Unsurprisingly enough, Herschel even discovered galaxies including the galaxy NGC 2093.

image of herschel satellite

ESA's Herschel IR space telescope (Image credit: ESA/ AOES Medialab)

 

This constant stream of notable and impressive discoveries and recordings lead to Hershel being knighted in 1821 and, before his death, becoming president of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Throughout his many years of research and discoveries Hershel did find a love on earth and married in 1788 to Mary Pitt. He only had one child with Mary named John and undoubtedly, he followed in his father’s astronomical footsteps, continuing his work and research long after Herschel’s death in 1822 at the age of 84.

Herschel is buried in the Church of Saint Lawrence in Upton but astronomers still remember and respect the musical and astronomical genius today. He paved a very clear path in the sky that many have expanded on and his contribution to our ever expanding knowledge of the Universe has not gone unrewarded. He has had many honours bestowed upon him even long after his death, with craters on the Moon, Mars and Mimas named after him. An asteroid also bears the name of Herschel as well as the great honour of a deep space telescope called the Herschel Space Observatory.

But despite all his genius Hershel was human as we can see, from a scared young boy at war to a gallant hero to his sister, and there was a lot more to the man that discovered the “Georgian Planet!”

(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)