If you know the names of astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, there is a good chance that you have a telescope which you bring out on clear nights to scan the stars. The brother and sister who were born in Hanover in eighteenth century Germany, the region from which the British monarchs of their time came, have been forgotten by recent general science textbooks. With The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos, author Michael D. Lemonick aims to restore their fame.
The Herschels were quite famous in their time. William was a talented musician who migrated to Bath, England to play in orchestras that entertained the rich tourists who came to "take the healing waters." After several prosperous years and making prominent friends, he got the chance to look in a telescope and was hooked on the hobby of scanning the heavens for comets. Fairly soon he thought that he had found an unnamed comet, but it turned out that he instead discovered the planet Uranus, which he named Georgium Sidas in honor of George III, who then granted him a pension. He gave up music and moved to Windsor to be at hand when the king needed an astronomer to entertain his evening guests.
Caroline often helped her brother with his night scans as his scribe, recording his findings. She spelled him at the telescope as he tired and when he had other commitments. In the process, she became better than he at finding comets. In time, she too got a pension from the king and honors from the Royal Society and other science societies.
William and his brother Alexander built most of their telescopes, some of which they sold to rich patrons. They were almost killed in the collapse of one of their larger constructions. William and Caroline remapped the night sky, finding thousands of stars not yet plotted, as well as identifying the moons of Saturn. William coined the term "asteroid" and challenged the then prevailing belief that stars were spread uniformly across the universe.
William firmly believed that there were people on all the planets. He argued that God had no reason to make an uninhabited planet. He also believed that someday astronomers would find planets around all the stars. Only in the last two decades have they proven him right on the last count.
The Georgian Star is an entertaining quick read that may lead readers to other books in the Great Discoveries Series. More public libraries should have these books.
Lemonick, Michael D. The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos. W. W. Norton, 2009. ISBN 9780393065749