Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mr. Herschel and His Sister

Michael D. Lemonick; The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos (Atlas & Co./W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; 2009; ISBN 978-0-393-06574-9; cover from various sources).

This slim volume is part of the Great Discoveries series from Atlas/Norton. I'm not sure how its length compares to others in the series; this was a fairly slim, but very informative book.

The book covers William and Caroline Herschel. In a nutshell, William discovered the planet Uranus and is known throughout history for that fact, if nothing else. Until relatively recently, if mentioned at all, Caroline was the one who kept house for him.

As Lemonick shows, the relationship was a lot more complex than that. Caroline was intellectually starved and was withering in Germany; she flourished in England. Not only did she help William with his music, but she composed on her own. And, while he built bigger and bigger reflecting telescopes, she did as well. And while he was discovering the planet Uranus, she had her own extensive observing program. It is a fascinating bit of history, all tied up in one relatively brief package.

If the book falls short anywhere, it is in talking about the telescopes. Lemonick mentions various sized (in feet, which is how they used to be described) telescopes that Herschel used or built, most improvements on the reflecting telescope of another famous scientific personality, Isaac Newton. He could have spent less time talking about Caroline's situation from the perspective of 20th century women and more on why telescopes were measured in feet, the differences between metal mirrors and glass mirrors, the mounts that Herschel used and how they helped/hindered him, etc. But this is a relatively minor quibble; as I said, a fascinating bit of history in a relatively brief package. Recommended.

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