I found out just today, that (1) it was a Thursday and therefore my day to post and (2) on March 13, 1781, William Herschel discovered Uranus. This is very fortuitous, because the Herschel Museum of Astronomy in Bath is one of my very favorite places–I blogged about it long ago on September 8, 2005, when we were all brand spanking new here; and Elena blogged about Herschel’s sister Charlotte a couple of years ago. Search the blog for Herschel and you’ll find all sorts of references–his name just keeps coming up.

So who was Herschel and why was he so important? In the words of Patrick Moore, patron of the Herschel Museum, William Herschel was the first man to give a reasonably correct picture of the shape of our star-system or galaxy; he was the best telescope-maker of his time, and possibly the greatest observer who ever lived.

And his achievements were all the more impressive because Herschel, a refugee from Hanover (Germany) was self-taught and became an astronomer more or less by accident. He was a musician by training, who received a telescope in lieu of payment, looked the instrument over and decided he could create a better one.

The Museum, at 19 New King Street in Bath, is a modest building in the sort of street where artisans lived. It’s beautifully and faithfully restored to the period, and filled with Herschel’s telescopes and books. Sadly, the Octagon Chapel nearby, one of Bath’s most fashionable churches in the eighteenth century, where Herschel held the position of organist, was closed and badly in need of restoration. (Or at least it was when I last visited two years ago. The organ itself, pictured here, no longer exists. And people in the museum were hopping mad that the city was pouring money into the new Thermae Bath Spa.) Does anyone know what the latest on the Octagon Chapel is? Jane Austen–you may have heard of her–was one of the many visitors to Bath who attended services there.

But back to Herschel. The small house on New King Street was flooded with visitors including the King, after whom Herschel named the new planet, Georgium Sidus, but the name never caught on. He was awarded the Copley medal and elected a member of the Royal Society, and then appointed Astronomer Royal in 1782, which necessitated a move to Slough, near Windsor. His descendants, some of whom were also astronomers, lived in the same house until the mid-twentieth century. Guess what happened to the house…

How do you feel about preservation vs. modernization? If you were in charge of a historic city, what would your priorities be? How would you reconcile commerce with history?

And has anyone visited the Thermae Spa? When I was in Bath they were selling very expensive products connected with it, but it wasn’t yet open.

Can you pronounce Uranus with a straight face? (The official museum pronunciation is you-RIN-us which isn’t much better).

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