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05 November 2020

ACE is pleased to introduce the first in a new series of short histories, exploring interesting stories relating to familiar topics, with the aim of inspiring cultural curiosity. This week, we investigate a fascinating story surrounding a theme to which we are accustomed but which never fails to inspire awe and wonder – the Night Sky.

 


The Herschel Family
 
At first glance, number 19 New King Street, in the city of Bath, appears no different to the other terraced Georgian townhouses that surround it. However, it played witness to a pivotal moment in humanity’s understanding of the night sky: it was here, in 1781, that the house’s then resident William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, thereby “doub[ling] the size of the known universe”.

William Herschel by Lemuel Francis Abbott

I have looked further into space than any human being did before me

— William Herschel
William was a composer and musician by profession, but he and his sister Caroline took a keen interest in astronomy. Their skill and achievements led to William being granted the title of King’s Astronomer, and Caroline discovering no less than eight comets, developing her own reputation as an accomplished astronomer.

Born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in 1738 in the Electorate of Hanover in Germany, William anglicised his name to Frederick William upon moving to England. A composer of symphonies and concertos, he played the oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ, and initially took up work performing in Newcastle, Durham and Halifax before moving to Bath, where he held the position of organist of the Octagon Chapel and director of the Bath Orchestra. 
Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Colour lithograph by A. Diethe, 1896
From his home in New King Street, William began creating his own telescopes, watching the night sky and keeping a record of his observations in a journal. He had been joined in Bath by his sister Caroline, who collaborated with William firstly in his musical career, and subsequently in his astronomical endeavours.



William Herschel's 40-foot telescope
William took a particular interest in ‘double stars’ – pairs of stars located close to one another – and it was during a search for these in March 1781 that he first observed the planet Uranus. Remarkably, this was the first planet to have been discovered in the night sky since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Before it was named Uranus in the mid 19th century, after the classical god, the planet was known by the name of ‘Georgium Sidus’ in honour of King George III. A year after the discovery, William was appointed the King’s Astronomer, and he and Caroline moved to the town of Datchet near Windsor Castle.
Over the next decade, Caroline discovered several comets, working both alongside her brother and independently, and she became the first woman to receive a salary for astronomical work. Caroline received several honours in her lifetime, and an asteroid and two open clusters are named after her.

“Herschel was a professional musician before discovering Uranus and becoming the King’s Astronomer; both sides of his life are reflected in this museum which also sheds light on Bath’s musical life in the late 18th century. The museum opened specially for our morning visit!”

 ACE Tour Director Sandy Burnett on the 2020 Bath Bachfest tour 
The Herschel Museum, occupying the townhouse where the siblings lived and worked in Bath, is dedicated to the legacy of its distinguished occupants. A specially commissioned exhibition gallery, the Caroline Lucretia Gallery, opened in 2011 and complements the restored historical interiors. The museum’s collections range from models and replicas of William’s remarkable telescopes, to globes and planetaria.

[William Herschel was] the first man to give a reasonably correct picture of the shape of our star-system or galaxy, the best telescope-maker of his time, and possibly the greatest observer who ever lived
 

— Sir Patrick Moore
Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyager 2 in 1986
For those, like Herschel, who wish to engage in some observations of the night sky from home, events to look out for in the upcoming astronomical calendar include November’s full moon, occurring this year on the 30th. This is the last full moon before the Winter Solstice, and has received the name ‘Mourning Moon’ in pagan traditions, as well as the name ‘Darkest Depths Moon’. The brightness it imbues makes the surrounding sky appear all the darker, so the nights towards the middle of the month lend themselves best to stargazing – depending on the weather conditions of course!

Why not take a look outside on a clear night, or join an online astronomy talk such as those run by the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, whose observing season is currently underway:
https://www.public.ast.cam.ac.uk

The Herschel Museum runs a programme of events - including evening stargazing sessions in the gardens of the house, in the company of the Bath Astronomers - which are expected to resume after the present lockdown period. To find out about future events, keep an eye on the museum’s website: https://herschelmuseum.org.uk

We hope you have enjoyed this brief exploration of the lives and achievements of the Herschel family. Next week, we delve into the topic of ‘A Good Read’ and study some famous libraries in the next in our series of ‘ACE stories for the culturally curious’. 
 
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