Explorer of the Heavens

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Only a hint can be gleaned of the incredible life and works of this remarkable astronomer and his family from the necessarily brief account given here. You are strongly encouraged to consult the various Herschel references given in Appendix 2 - which make fascinating reading, especially on cloudy nights! But here, the author would like to share just two of the moving testimonials to be found in the biographies of William Herschel from this listing, in the hope of conveying at least some sense of this observer's rare genius and astounding accomplishments.

Lick Observatory Director Edward Holden, in his 1881 classic work Sir William Herschel, had this to say about the great astronomer and his observational model of the Milky Way:

As a scientific conception it is perhaps the grandest that has ever entered into the human mind. As a practical astronomer he remains without an equal. In profound philosophy he has few superiors. By a kindly chance he can be claimed as the citizen of no one country. In very truth his is one of the few names which belong to the whole world.

Fig. 1.3. Caroline Herschel shown in her 80s back in Hanover, where she returned after Sir William's death. In a letter to her nephew, Sir John Herschel, she said: "You will see what a solitary and useless life I have led these 17 years all owing to not finding Hanover, nor anyone in it, like what I left, when the best of brothers took me with him to England in August, 1772." Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society/Science Photo Library, London.

Equally moving are the following words by British astronomical historian Agnes Clerke from her 1895 classic biography The Herschels and Modern Astronomy:

The grand problem with which Herschel grappled all his life involves more complicated relations than he was aware of. It might be compared to a fortress, the citadel of which can only be approached after innumerable outworks have been stormed. That one man, urged on by the exulted curiosity inspired by the contemplation of the heavens, attempted to carry it by a coup de main, and, having made no inconsequential breach in its fortifications, withdrew from the assault, his 'banner torn, but flying,' must always be remembered with amazement.

Fig. 1.4. Sir John Herschel seen in his prime. He not only extended his father's work in the northern skies over England, but also explored those of the southern heavens as well from Cape Town, South Africa, using Sir William's favorite telescope -the "large 20-foot" reflector (see Fig. 2.2). Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society/ Science Photo Library, London.

Fig. 1.4. Sir John Herschel seen in his prime. He not only extended his father's work in the northern skies over England, but also explored those of the southern heavens as well from Cape Town, South Africa, using Sir William's favorite telescope -the "large 20-foot" reflector (see Fig. 2.2). Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society/ Science Photo Library, London.

Fig. 1.5. John Herschel in his later years. In addition to his fame as an astronomer, he was also a brilliant mathematician, gifted science writer, and a pioneer in the field of photography. Courtesy of the Royal Astronomical Society/Science Photo Library, London.

Chapter 2

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