Someone to Give Us All an Inferiority Complex

On 28 August 1789, German-born British astronomer Frederick William Herschel decided to test drive his brand new 12m telescope and wound up discovering Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus. So, I guess we can say that first outing was a success, no?

Herschel, to be honest, was kind of an intellectual freak. He started his adult life as an oboist in the Hannoverian Guards regiment band (an instrument both his father and his brother Jakob played). He eventually found himself in England, whose king, George II, was also elector of Hanover. In addition to the oboe, he played cello, harpsichord, and eventually the organ and violin. Not easy instruments to master. He also composed and left behind a collection of 24 symphonies, some church music, and several concertos. To give you an idea of what an impressive body of work that is, Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies; Mahler 12. And these were men who made their livings through music pretty much throughout their entire adult lives.

After settling down in Bath, where he was director of the Bath orchestra, Herschel decided to dabble in mathematics and astronomy, which isn’t a huge leap in interests, considering his love and obvious talent for music. He became acquainted with the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, and soon set about building his own reflecting telescopes, spending up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the mirrors. Because I guess he wasn’t quite busy enough already. He started seriously looking skyward in 1773 and began keeping an astronomical journal the following year.

He started off examining binary star systems, cataloguing them carefully. In all, he discovered more than 800 confirmed double or multiple star systems, and his work provided the foundation for modern binary star astronomy.

In March 1781, while searching for yet another double star to add to his collection, Herschel instead noticed something different: a nonstellar disk, which he originally thought was a comet. After observing it for some time, his findings made their way to a Russian academician, who computed the orbit and concluded it was probably a planet. Herschel agreed and called it the Georgian star, after King George III. The name was eventually changed to Uranus. Herschel was awarded the Copley Medal and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his discovery; in 1782 he was appointed the King’s Astronomer. Accompanied by his sister, Caroline, he moved to Buckinghamshire and cultivated an international reputation as a telescope maker.

Bored now with binary stars, Herschel looked for bigger things, eventually recording more than 2400 objects loosely defined as nebulae. He published his findings in three catalogues that were released in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His sister also got in on the game, as did his son, though the two of them didn’t come near the number of discoveries Herschel made. Caroline, however, was honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society for her work updating and correcting an earlier work about the position of stars.

The Herschels eventually moved near London, where Herschel constructed his massive 12m telescope, at the time the largest one in the world. And the first time he used it, he found a new moon for Saturn. Not bad. He went on to discover another moon, as well as two moons of Uranus, which were named Titania and Oberon by his son, John, long after Herschel’s death. Herschel also noted that Mars’s ice caps changed size with the planet’s seasons and was the first person to realise that the solar system is moving through space. After studying the structure of the Milky Way, he concluded it was in the shape of a disk. Oh, and he also coined the word “asteroid” and discovered infrared radiation in sunlight. And he used a microscope to observe coral and bust the myth that it was a plant. Clearly, he was a man who did not like to be idle.  

Herschel lived long enough to see his son found the Astronomical Society of London in 1820 (later to become the Royal Astronomical Society). On 25 August 1822, Herschel died, leaving behind an incredible legacy (even if Uranus was later downgraded from planet status). His former home in Bath, where he first observed the now dwarf planet, is home to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.

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