Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born on November 15, 1738 in Hanover, Germany. His father Isaac was a musician with the regimental band of the Hanoverian Guards. Wilhelm’s formal education was only very basic. However, Isaac instilled in his children a love of music and an interest in observing the heavens. This, combined with Wilhelm’s own thirst for knowledge, meant that his learning was only just beginning when he left school at the age of 14 to join his father as a military bandsman.
Success with music
In 1757, 18-year-old Wilhelm and his elder brother Jacob moved to England where Wilhelm became known as William Herschel. His first job in England was hand-copying music. He then moved around England, becoming a band instructor, private music teacher, performer, composer, and church organist. He finally settled in Bath.
From 1757 to 1772, William achieved ‘success, acclaim, and growing prosperity’ from his music.1 During this time his hobbies were studying mathematics (including Newton’s calculus) and making naked-eye astronomy observations, as he had done as a boy with his father.
Change in focus
About 100 years earlier, Johannes Kepler had successfully analyzed the paths of the planets around the sun using mathematics (geometry). As Herschel read Newton’s work on optics and telescopes, he realized that there was enormous potential in combining his hobbies. He would make accurate astronomical observations by telescope, and interpret them mathematically, using techniques such as calculus. This was the beginning of modern astronomy.
As well as this dramatic shift in his intellectual focus, another significant change occurred in Herschel’s life in 1772. His sister Caroline, who shared his love of music (she was a singer) and astronomy, came to live with him in Bath. She was desperate to escape the restrictive expectations of her family in Hanover, who saw women as merely domestic drudges.
Astronomy in earnest
In 1773, Herschel bought books and equipment to begin astronomy in earnest. He hired a reflecting telescope, and purchased a quadrant to measure angles between stars and planets. He soon realized that this telescope was not powerful enough. Unable to afford a bigger telescope, he decided to make his own.
Herschel cast his own metal telescope mirrors and then spent endless hours grinding and polishing them. By the end of 1774, he was using a telescope which he had built himself, three times as large as his first one.
In 1782, Herschel and his sister each gave their last public music performance. After that, he devoted himself to astronomy, and she became his devoted and invaluable assistant. (She later became a noted astronomer in her own right — see sidenote below) Herschel went on to construct over 400 telescopes, the biggest of which had a focal length of 12 metres (40 feet) and a mirror 122 cm (48 inches) in diameter. The magnification of the eyepiece, 6,450 times, was greater than any in existence. This remained the largest telescope in the world for over 50 years.
The moon, the planets, and the sun
Like most astronomers before him, Herschel began by investigating the closest heavenly bodies — the moon, the sun and the planets of our solar system. He measured the height of the mountains on the moon, and he discovered the sixth and seventh moons of Saturn. In 1781, while investigating what he and others believed to be a comet, Herschel actually proved it to be a new planet, Uranus. This was the first planet discovered since ancient times. For this discovery, Herschel was awarded the prestigious Copely Award of the Royal Society, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He later discovered the two largest moons of Uranus — Titania and Oberon.
Herschel investigated heat and light from the sun using thermometers and prisms. In 1800, he was able to discover that ‘the sensation of heat was not correlated to visible light … and to correctly hypothesize the existence of the invisible infrared heat waves’.2 He also correctly predicted many properties of infrared radiation.
Distant celestial bodies
Herschel also investigated the distant celestial bodies. In 1783, he mathematically verified that the sun itself was moving through space as part of the Milky Way galaxy (see aside below).
In 1784, Herschel began systematically studying the shape of the Milky Way. He ‘formulated a picture or map of the Milky Way, which was quite remarkable in his time, and which even now is not wildly wrong.’3
In 1782 and 1785, Herschel published catalogues of 848 double stars. He proved that these did not just appear close together because of our line of sight, but were made up of two stars which actually revolved around each other.
Over a period of 25 years, he undertook the enormous project of investigating and cataloguing nebulae, milky luminous patches in the night sky. With his advanced telescopes, Herschel was able to verify that nebulae were clusters of innumerable stars. In 1820, he published a catalogue of 2,500 new nebulae.
Herschel was a committed Christian. His Christian character was evident throughout his adult life. According to a biographer, he was ‘warm-hearted and affectionate’.4 He showed loving and practical concern for his family by returning to the Continent to search for his missing younger brother. Also, he generously helped his struggling father and brothers financially.
Similarly, Herschel’s Christian beliefs were evident. When his older brother Jacob returned to Hanover after two years in England with William, they kept in constant contact by letter. In addition to writing about personal matters and music, much of William’s letters consisted of theological discussions.
Herschel strongly believed that God’s universe was characterized by order and planning. His discovery of that order led him to conclude that ‘the undevout astronomer must be mad’.5
In 1788, at almost 50 years of age, Herschel married a wealthy widow named Mary Pitt. They had a son John who, like his father, became both a famous astronomer and a committed Christian (see sidenote below).
In 1816 Herschel was knighted, and in 1821 he became President of the Astronomical Society. He also received honours from academies and countries all over the world. He died in Slough, England, on the 25th of August 1822, at the age of 83.
Sidgwick, J.B., ‘William Herschel: Explorer of the Heavens’, Faber & Faber, London, UK, p. 33, 1953.
Simmons, J., The Giant Book of Scientists, The Book Co., Sydney, Australia, p. 138, 1997.
McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, USA, 5:241, 1973.
Ref. 1, p. 28.
Herschel, W. quoted in: Morris, H.M., Men of Science, Men of God, Master Books, El Cajon, CA, USA, p. 30, 1982.
Pioneering Woman Astronomer
Caroline was her brother William’s devoted and invaluable assistant for 50 years. She later became a noted astronomer in her own right — ‘the first important woman astronomer’.1 She discovered eight comets and three nebulae.
In 1828, she was awarded ‘the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for completing, arranging, and editing the star catalogues of her brother and of the British astronomer John Flamsteed’.1 In 1835, Caroline was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1838. In 1846, she was awarded the Gold Medal for Science by the King of Prussia.
Caroline was humble, dedicated, and self-sacrificing — ‘Her cometary discoveries she made light of, counting them as nothing compared with the assistance that she had been able to give William. His interests, his work, his well-being, his reputation — these were her only concern.’2 In her lonely old age, Caroline derived much comfort from singing her favourite hymns.3
- Encarta 96 Encyclopedia, Herschel, Caroline Lucretia, Microsoft Corporation, Funk & Wagnalls, 1993-1995.
- Sidgwick, J.B., William Herschel: Explorer of the Heavens, Faber & Faber, London, UK, pp. 211–212, 1953.
- Ref. 2, p. 217.
In his father’s footsteps
In contrast to his father William, John Herschel received an excellent education. Initially John became a mathematician.
With two friends, he formed the Analytical Society. One of these friends was the father of modern computing, Charles Babbage (another devout Christian). They undertook the task of translating books on the latest European mathematical methods into English. Their work played a very influential role in reforming mathematics teaching in English universities.
John added to his father’s observations of distant celestial bodies (including double stars and nebulae) visible in the northern hemisphere. He then undertook the equivalent work for the southern hemisphere. He was the first astronomer to measure the brightness of stars with real precision. John made extremely detailed observations of Halley’s comet. He also authored an extremely successful textbook on astronomy.
John pioneered the use of sodium thiosulphite (commonly called hypo) as a fixing agent in early photography. He was one of the first to apply photography to astronomy.
John Herschel believed that his scientific discoveries confirmed the existence of a loving creator God. He stated that: ‘All human discoveries seem to be made only for the purpose of confirming more and more strongly the truths [that] come from on high and [that are] contained in the sacred writings.’1
John strongly opposed evolution, referring to Darwin’s ideas as the ‘law of higgledy piggledy’.2
Herschel, J. quoted in: Morris, H.M., Men of Science, Men of God, Master Books, El Cajon, CA, USA, p. 42, 1982.
Herschel, J., quoted in: Graham K., Hicks L., Shimmin D., and Thompson G., Biology: God’s Living Creation, A Beka Book, Pensacola, FL, USA, p. 348, 1986.
The earth ... central to God’s purposes
Ancient astronomers believed that the earth was stationary, and was the physical centre of the universe. However, Copernicus proposed that the planets, including the earth, move around the sun. Their orbits were later shown by Johannes Kepler to be mathematically describable as ellipses. Kepler, like Herschel, was a committed Christian.
Kepler only had data from naked-eye measurements available to him. Later, with the aid of telescopes, William Herschel was able to prove that the sun was a star moving through space as part of the Milky Way galaxy.
Proving that the earth was not the centre of the solar system did not shake Kepler’s faith in God. Similarly, proving that our solar system was not the centre of the galaxy did not in any way shake Herschel’s strong faith in the God who created the universe. Whether or not the earth may yet turn out to be somewhere near the physical centre of the universe, as proposed by creationist physicist Dr Russell Humphreys,1 the earth is clearly the centre of God’s purposes in creation, and redemption.
- Humphreys, R., Starlight and Time, Master Books, AZ, USA, 1994. The book presents a creationist cosmology which purports to solve the ‘star-light travel-time’ problem. Humphreys explains that the ‘big bang’ cosmology depends on the philosophical assumption that the universe has no centre or edge (i.e. is unbounded). This is claimed to be the reason why, on a large scale, there is no difference in the total observed density of stars in any direction. But if in fact the universe is bounded, this would be consistent with our being somewhere near the centre.