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LITERARY REVIEW March 2011

BIOGRAPHY

the courage of his convictions. He persuaded (if that is not too gentle a word) Caroline to give up a potential singing career for long, cold nights at the telescope. At first she recorded observations as he dictated them to her. She then turned herself into an accomplished observer in her own right, discovering no fewer than eight comets. William married a rich widow, and his son, John, received a good education and wanted for nothing. He grew up to be the kind of man who could have turned his hand to anything, graduating from Cambridge in 1813 as Senior Wrangler in mathematics, f ancying a career as a lawyer; but like Caroline his career was decided for him. By then William, who had been born in 1738, was too old for the rigours of observing and it became John’s duty to continue his father’s work. Selling his law books for six pounds, in 1816 he became William’s apprentice. William’s convictions were not always entirely sound. He firmly believed that every astronomical body, including the sun and stars, was inhabited by intelligent beings. But perhaps this can be excused as an eccentricity when set alongside his great body of astronomical work, which grew to become a catalogue of the northern skies, listing nebulae (many now known to be galaxies like our own Milky Way), clusters, and double stars. He even speculated that some of these nebulae, such as the one in the constellation of Andromeda, ‘may well outvie our milky-way in grandeur’. It was only in the 1920s that obser vations by the Amer i can a s t ronomer Edwin Hubble proved this conjecture correct.

John’s great achievement was to extend his father’s work into the southern hemisphere, spending years at the Cape (in modern South Africa) and eventually completing a survey of the southern skies just as his father had surveyed the northern skies. He thus became the first and only astronomer to observe the entire celestial globe personally, using a large telescope.

Astonishingly, Caroline was still alive, at the age of ninety-seven, when the project was completed. She received the news a few months before she died on 9 January 1848.

A great deal of what we know about the Herschels actually comes from Caroline, who in her nineties wrote out instalments of what amounted to an autobiography to send to John and his family. Hoskin makes excellent use of this and other source mater ial, br ing ing the Herschels to life against the background of late eight e enth- and e a r l y n i neteenth-centur y s oc i e t y i n England. William’s success was in no small measure due to his unrivalled skill as a telescope maker, which he used not only for his own observational benefit but to gain favour with royalty, providing instruments with which they could entertain and amaze their visitors.

This is an elegant and enjoyable book that will delight equally readers who have no background in astronomy and those who think they already know about the Herschels. To order this book for £16.95, see LR bookshop opposite