The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos by Michael D Lemonick
|The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos by Michael D Lemonick|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A good quick look at the remarkable life, times and efforts of William Herschel. It ticks all the right informative boxes without ever extending itself from its boundaries.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: February 2009|
|Publisher: W W Norton and Co|
No-one can ever look at the night skies above our heads as Galileo did. The light pollution covering so much of our planet makes it impossible to see nearly as much as he might. Conversely, he would have adored living in a time such as ours – with the technology to show him so much he couldn't see, so much he daren't dream of. Sitting happily between those two extremes was William Herschel.
If there's only room in your life for one eighteenth century astronomer's biography, it might as well be Herschel's. From a family of gardeners in the imperial grounds in Dresden came a batch of musical prodigies – composers, performers and teachers. And with a first career in providing the musical accompaniment to soldiers in the Thirty Years' War, Herschel looked like becoming another in that line. His background never foretold what befell him on the evening of March 13th 1789, when he did what no-one in his lifetime had done, and what no person alive today has done.
This primer into the life and works of Herschel didn't quite work for me when explaining the work Herschel was first doing in his manically adopted hobby of astronomy. It is better when it comes to the personal details about the man – showing the aptitude he had for diligent hard labour, endless self-improvement, and those singular, superlative factors, such as his talent for building by far the best optics used by any scientist then working – that all fitted into place when he firmly identified a new planet in this solar system, Uranus. Encouraged to hold out for acclaim from George III, he called his discovery Georgium Sidus – the Georgian Star. It befell someone else to follow the mythological pattern in naming planets other than the Earth. Herschel hated the name. Science teachers have not been helped by it, either.
The scientist carried on after that, and so does our narrative. The job of Astronomer Royal never befell Herschel, but he did become something of a plaything for the Royal Family, and King George did visit the Berkshire homes of him and his sister a couple of times. So did other scientists – some beaten back by the nightmare of stopping out all night observing in the mini Ice Age, and working at minus degrees Fahrenheit, when Caroline's ink had frozen, preventing any records being made.
It is the lightness in seemingly trivial details I liked this book for, and not so much the extended reporting of the argument Herschel had with himself regarding what had caused all the nebulae he was discovering. With hindsight we can see a light/heavy dichotomy with the astronomer himself – he it was who first found proof of the seasons on Mars, with the polar caps expanding and shrinking, and duly considered what the natives made of it all.
More extraordinary elements such as that made me realise I was enjoying this book so much because of the life story it tells, and not so much the telling. There is nothing disagreeable about the book, and I cannot say anything disappointed. It convinced me I was learning all I needed to know – the bijou format does not mean anything major gets left out in this instance. But at the same time I was not aware of anything being extended – no new details coming to light, nothing to remark about the telling. It is still well worth a quick look, as what it covers is generally of great interest, and the scientific parts are never a complete burden – so much is packed in they don't stay the focus of the book for long.
We at the Bookbag must thank Norton for our review copy.
For a child-friendly introduction to the cosmos we can recommend Voyage Across The Cosmos by Giles Sparrow.
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