William Herschel’s new planet



After a drink-fuelled night discussing Homer, the medical student John Keats wrote his famous lines comparing his own wonderment with that of  “some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Keats was referring to William Herschel, the astronomer who had enlarged the solar system with a seventh planet, now known as Uranus.

Historians like pinning discoveries down to an exact time and place, but in this case it is simply not possible. Uranus had already been spotted many times, but was always assumed to be a star. In 1781, after noticing that “34 Tauri” moved across the skies, Herschel suggested it was a comet. He clung to that belief for two years, long after other experts had decided it was a planet, until in 1783, he was rewarded by the king with an annual salary and an invitation to Windsor.

Diplomatically Herschel named his planet George’s Star, but European astronomers objected to such chauvinism, and it was only in 1850 that British authorities finally adopted the German proposal of Uranus.

An immigrant from Hanover, when Herschel observed Uranus he was earning his living as a musician in Bath. Displaying the passion of a late convert, he started dedicating his entire life to astronomy – and William forced his younger sister, Caroline, to abandon her own musical career and act as his assistant. Their success depended on hard work and unusually large telescopes that collected enough light to make small, distant objects visible.

Craftsmen often recruited daughters or wives to help run family businesses, but the Herschels developed an exceptionally close relationship. By day Caroline polished mirrors, calculated data and compiled catalogues, while at night she brought coffee to keep them awake as they worked together in the dark and cold.

Awards for William poured in, but recognition for Caroline came only after her death. Whereas he is credited with discovering Uranus, she is celebrated for being the first woman to report a new comet, which she had found by patiently trawling the skies with a small telescope very different from the gigantic instrument they used together. Acting as a tourist guide, she had conducted eminent visitors through its tube. “Come”, she heard George III say to the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I will show you a way to Heaven”.

Looking back, it seems that William treated her appallingly, but like many women of the period, Caroline colluded in this downtrodden state. “I am nothing, I have done nothing”, she wrote; “a well trained puppy dog would have done as much” – a self-abnegating remark that cannot simply be dismissed.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society made Caroline an honorary member, formulating his early statement of equal opportunities: “While the tests of astronomical merit should in no case be applied to the works of a woman less severely than to those of a man, the sex of the former should no longer be an obstacle to her receiving any acknowledgement which might be held due to the latter.” The language may be outdated, but the sentiments are modern.

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