Richly detailed biography of the man who discovered the planet Uranus and partnered with his sister to lay the foundations of modern astronomy.
Son of a German musician, William Herschel (1738–1822) emigrated to England as a young man, eventually finding steady employment in the upscale resort city of Bath. A workaholic who supported his huge family by teaching, performing and conducting, he never lost his fascination with mathematics and astronomy. He and Caroline, his favorite sister, pored over books, constructed their own technically superior telescopes and examined the sky for decades beginning in the 1770s. Since the dawn of history, everyone had taken it for granted that there were seven planets, so William’s accidental discovery of an eighth in 1781 came as a bombshell, gaining him worldwide celebrity and a lifetime pension from George III that enabled him to pursue astronomy full time. William never considered finding Uranus his most significant feat, and veteran science writer Lemonick (Echo of the Big Bang, 2003, etc.) agrees, making a case that the Herschel siblings’ contributions were more fundamental than that. Unlike previous observers who rarely thought deeply about their findings, William examined the sky systematically, kept precise records and then theorized on what he had found. He calculated the sun’s movement across the galaxy and speculated, sometimes with great prescience, on the nature of the cosmos and stars, as well as the innumerable nebulae, clusters, clouds and new objects he had catalogued. Caroline at first filled the traditional female role as her brother’s assistant and housekeeper, but soon became a skilled observer who worked alone. Readers will share the author’s admiration of how much the pair accomplished with the primitive technology at their disposal and will have no trouble navigating Lemonick’s lively prose and lucid explanations of astronomical phenomena.
A rewarding account of two scientists who not only made great discoveries but enjoyed world recognition during their long, eventful lives.