At home with the Herschels

Herschel’s garden. It was from here that he discovered Uranus. Credit: Will Gater

Yesterday I paid a visit to the former home of one of my all time astronomy heroes. Number 19, New King Street in Bath was the home of Sir William Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers this country, and indeed the world, has ever seen. Today the house is a museum, celebrating Herschel’s great achievements, as well as those of his sister Caroline, who herself was a prolific comet hunter and accomplished astronomer.

One of the prisms Herschel used to study infrared radiation. Credit: Will Gater

William is undoubtedly most famous for his discoveries of Uranus and infrared radiation. But he and Caroline were also pioneers of the technique of ‘survey astronomy’. It’s a method that today’s professional astronomers use to study large swathes the sky, looking for objects like asteroids, supernovae, and interesting galaxies. With the telescopes of his day however, William surveyed the sky looking for nebulae and star clusters. His ‘Catalogue of Nebulae’ went on to form the basis of John Dreyer’s famous ‘New General Catalogue’, which astronomers, both amateur and professional, still use today.

The Herschel Museum is full of artefacts from the Herschels’ lives including family letters, notes, many pieces of William’s telescopes and the tools he used to make them. Of all the pieces in the museum, there was one that really caught my eye.

If I’ve understood it correctly, it’s a letter (right) from Caroline Herschel to another astronomer, requesting him to follow-up on her observations of what she suspects to be a comet. What I loved about this letter was how it showed that, in some ways at least, astronomy hasn’t changed after all these years. Even the pros today, using the largest telescopes in the world, still benefit from such collaborations with other astronomers. Now of course it’s an email, or a submission to use time on a big scope, rather than a hand written letter – but the meaning is just the same.

Above right: Caroline’s letter to a fellow astronomer, on display. Credit: Will Gater

You can find out more about the Herschel Museum here and I’ve embedded a short PBS documentary on the Herschels below.

Credit: PBS NOVA Video Podcasts

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