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…
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).
Send an e-mail to email@example.com with NEWSLETTER in the subject line to be apprised of the movements of the Planet Risky.
Did you know there was an important woman astronomer during the Regency? Caroline Herschel was born in Germany, in 1750. She accompanied her brother, William Herschel, to England, to serve as his housekeeper and also his assistant, and continued to study the stars until her death in 1848.
I found this letter from Caroline to her sister and thought I’d share.
William is away, and I am minding the heavens. I have discovered eight new comets and three nebulae never before seen by man, and I am preparing an index to Flamsteed’s observations, together with a catalogue of 560 stars omitted from the British Catalogue, plus a list of errata in that publication.
William says I have a way with numbers, so I handle all the necessary reductions and calculations. I also plan every night’s observation schedule, for he says my intuition helps me turn the telescope to discover star cluster after star cluster.
I have helped him polish the mirrors and lenses of our new telesope. It is the largest in existence. Can you imagine the thrill of turning it to some new corner of the heavens to see something never before seen from earth? I actually like that he is busy with the Royal Society and his club, for when I finish my other work I can spend all night sweeping the heavens.
Sometimes when I am alone in the dark, and the universe reveals yet another secret, I say the names of my long lost sisters, forgotten in the books that record our science:
Aganice of Thessaly,
–as if the stars themselves could remember. Did you know that Hildegard proposed a heliocentric universe 300 years before Copernicus? That she wrote of universal gravitation 500 years before Newton? But who would listen to her? She was just a nun, a woman.
What is our age, if that age was dark? As for my name, it will also be forgotten, but I am not accused of being a sorceress, like Aganice, and the Christians do not threaten to drag me to church, to murder me, like they did Hyptia of Alexandria, the eloquent young woman who devised the instruments used to accurately measure the position and motion of heavenly bodies.
However long we live, life is short, so I work. And however important man becomes, he is nothing compared to the stars. There are secrets, dear sister, and it is for us to reveal them. Your name, like mine, is a song.
Doesn’t she sound like someone we’d like to meet? I would love to tell her that in our day, there are little girls who think it’s cool to celebrate a birthday at an observatory. I think it would make her smile.
LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, Best Regency Romance
I find a lot of people don’t know about this museum in Bath, so naturally whenever I get the opportunity I spread the word. It’s the home of the astronomer William Herschel, and where he discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 (I mean, through a telescope. He didn’t find a major planet lying around among the old newspapers, which is the sort of thing, on a less celestial scale, that happens in my house). Herschel’s story is fascinating. He was a refugee from Hanover and a musician (you can buy recordings of his works), and traveled around England for a time as an itinerant music teacher before settling in Bath. There, one of his pupils paid him with a telescope, and he figured out he could make a better one. So he did. His sister Caroline joined him in England and was also an astronomer, and after the discovery of Uranus many famous names flocked to his observatory at 19 New King St. Eventually King George III invited him to move near Windsor to continue his work there.
The house is gorgeous and intimate–on a much smaller and modest scale than the houses of the Royal Crescent, for instance, and beautifully restored (I kidnapped a pic of the music room–note the “wall to wall” carpeting–actually long strips of carpet, and the intricate wallpaper) and full of Herschel’s books, furniture, and telescopes. His laboratory still features the cracked flagstones from a mishap of 1781. There’s also a charming garden, with a replica of his telescope.
I only discovered this museum the last time I visited Bath and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
Anyone else care to share their favorite place?