Let me be the first to admit that a biography of Sir William Herschel published more than 130 years ago, and written by a pedantic intellectual is not going to have a wide appeal among a general audience today. But if you are like me, a lifetime amateur astronomy wonk, then this free Kindle ebook will be a delicious treat.
The author, Edward Singleton Holden, was an American astronomer of some accomplishment. He served as director of Washburn Observatory in Madison, Wisconsin, and was also a professor of mathematics at the U.S. Naval Observatory. One of the things he is most famous for is announcing the discovery of a third Martian moon - which, alas, turned out not to exist.
But Holden was an extremely prolific writer, and not just in the field of astronomy. His list of publications is impressive and amazingly broad in scope. He was clearly a significant scholar of his day. He was born in 1846 and died in 1914.
In this short book, Holden all but gushes as he paints a portrait of Herschel that borders on worship - but this is hardly surprising since the majority of the documentation Holden draws from are the writings of Herschel's beloved and slavishly devoted sister, Caroline, who held her brother on a stellar pedestal of Olympian proportions.
Still, Holden also supplies plenty of further documentation in the form of letters written by luminaries who knew Herschel, or who only met him just briefly, only to be flabbergasted by his uncanny charm, enormous charisma and truly authentic modesty despite his world-wide renown and stunning achievements.
Herschel was German-born, but spent most of his adult life in England. It was his brilliant talent as a musician -- both as composer and performer-- that quickly elevated him into the highest tiers of English society. He spent his early career in Bath, which as the time was a vibrant center of culture - a place where artists, intellectuals, high-society and super-well-connected aristocrats gathered to celebrate the pinnacle of British civilization. Herschel was also a master of languages. His native tongue was German, but he spoke perfect, accent-free English, as well as French, Italian, Latin and could at least read Greek.
But astronomy and stargazing were Herschel's deepest passion -- his obsession. In his quest to constantly "see deeper into space than any other man," Herschel became the indisputably finest maker of reflecting telescopes in the world, which he built by hand. He ever strived to construct larger and larger instruments, culminating in his 40-inch-mirrored behemoth, which was the largest telescope on the planet for decades to come.
Today, Sir William Herschel is best known as the discoverer of Uranus - the first time in the history that another planet beyond Saturn came to be known. To say that this was a monumental accomplishment is a vast understatement. Since the beginning of science in ancient times, it was almost an article of established religion that there were, and could only be, six planets. It was the Divine order! That there might be one more - well - it is difficult for us to imagine today the paradigm shattering implications it had on the world of the late 1700s.
His accomplishments range far beyond the first man to discover a new planet, however. Herschel was more than an observer, but a formidable theoretician. His ideas on the distribution of stars and other objects, such as nebula and globular clusters, helped the scientific world envision a new model of the universe. His work with double stars and variable stars was ground-breaking.
The main things I take away from Holden's treatment of Herschel, however, is something I never knew about the great man before - that Sir William Herschel was flat out one of the nicest, sweetest, charming, most charismatic and beloved scientists ever to live.