Astronomer William Herschel was extraordinary for many reasons, not least of which was that he excelled in so many aspects of his field: observation, theory, and craftsmanship. When he could not buy mirrors large enough to build the telescopes he imagined, he made them himself in his own workshop (a trial-and-error enterprise that resulted in more than a few accidents and one explosion that cracked the floor). His unsurpassed skill at building ever-larger telescopes in turn enabled him to see further than any human being had before. Combined with his almost obsessive devotion to observation and precise measurement, and a soaring imagination, these qualities led Herschel to transform our understanding of the scope and nature of the universe.
Born in Hanover and trained as a military musician, William fled to England as a young man to avoid active military service. Eventually establishing himself as a professional musician in Bath, he was joined by his younger sister, Caroline, who eventually (and perhaps reluctantly) became his invaluable assistant, then partner, in his astronomical investigations. Herschel’s discovery of Uranus (which he tried unsuccessfully to name after King George III) made him the first person since antiquity to identify a new planet, and doubled the size of the known solar system. Even more significant was his work on nebulae, which he recognized as clusters of stars—some densely packed, others scattered. Herschel concluded that the difference was the result of gravity working over time, drawing the stars closer together. These “laboratories of the universe” as he called them, shattered older views of the universe as fixed and static, and revealed that it is full of change and movement and growth.
When Herschel died in 1822, his son John composed an epitaph, part of which declared: Coelorum perrupit claustra—“he broke through the barriers of the heavens.” Our own understanding of the vastness of Deep Space and Deep Time, and our vision of the cosmos as ever-evolving, makes us all heirs of William Herschel.
Laura Alary is a writer, reader, and all-round curious person. She has loved books since she was barely big enough to clamber up the steps to the bookmobile that rolled into her Halifax neighborhood once a week. At school, she made her own books out of manila paper, mucilage and crayons. The first story she can remember writing was about a little girl who kept spilling paint and having to figure out how to turn the messes into pictures (a good rule for life).
These days, Laura considers herself very lucky to work in a beautiful library and write her own
books. Her latest is What Grew in Larry’s Garden (Kids Can Press, 2020), and she is anticipating the publication of two new picture book biographies about Maria Mitchell and Cecilia Payne. You can find Laura and her books online
at www.lauraalary.ca (Twitter@LauraAlary1).
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