Telescope in an English Garden
by John Hudson Tiner
William Herschel lived at Bath, a resort town on the Avon River. There he composed music and taught as many as 35 students a week. He played the organ and led the choir of the famous Octagon Chapel. William became conductor of the orchestra, but he kept his many other duties, too.
Each night before he went to sleep, William Herschel read in bed with the covers pulled up to keep warm. Around him in a tumbled heap were books on music, mathematics, optics, and astronomy. Reading about astronomy did not satisfy him. William Herschel longed to see the wonderful sights described in the books.
"You don't have a telescope," his friends reminded him. That was true, too. A good telescope to view the planets cost more than William Herschel could afford. Finally, he saved enough to rent a telescope for three months. He viewed the skies with the telescope every clear night. Neighbors saw a remarkable sight on nights when he conducted the orchestra. During intermission of the concert he would race out the back way and jump the hedge. He would run down the cobblestone street to his house. Still dressed in his conductor's clothes, he would peer into the telescope set up in his garden. After a few minutes, he would hurry back to finish the concert.
The little telescope revealed the dazzling white clouds of Venus, the red surface of Mars, four of the moons in orbit around Jupiter and the mysterious rings of Saturn. Three months passed quickly. When the time came to return the telescope, his friends thought he would be satisfied. "Now he will leave the planets to the astronomers."
William Herschel had not seen enough. He had to have a telescope of his own. "If I can't buy one, then I'll make one," he resolved. His sister Caroline read to him as he worked. She would pop food into his mouth as he ground the mirrors. She took notes about the construction and what he saw in the telescope. His first telescope was not as good as he had hoped, but it was better than no telescope at all. As soon as he finished the first one, he began on the second one. Each telescope he finished taught him how to improve the next one.
What should he study with his telescope? Planets? No, professional astronomers with their excellent telescopes studied the planets. That left the stars. "I intend to examine all the stars I can see with my telescope," he decided. As the stars drifted across his eyepiece, he examined each one. Some stars were very bright. Others were extremely dim. Some were deep red. Others were bright blue. Some changed in brightness. Some came in pairs, in triplets, and in huge clusters of many thousands.
Herschel hunted out these strange sights. His sky survey took four years. He discovered two thousand double stars and twenty-five hundred star clusters. Most people thought it was a waste of time. What of importance could Herschel discover that the professional astronomers did not already know?
On Tuesday night, March 13, 1781, his sky survey took him into the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. He found a faint spot of light. It was a dim object of sixth magnitude. On a clear night away from bright lights, a sixth magnitude star was just visible to a person with keen eyesight. Unlike stars that always showed as pinpricks of light, this object had a very definite disk--like a planet! The new object moved so slowly that it had to orbit even farther from the sun than Saturn. To be visible at such a great distance meant it had to be large. It was nearly as large as Saturn. William Herschel had discovered a new planet.
William Herschel's discovery created a sensation in astronomy and in all of science. Some scientists believed they had made all the important discoveries. Nothing remained except to refine and improve on the existing facts. William Herschel had given a dramatic example of what waited to be uncovered. He had found a whole new world!
The new planet received the name Uranus. In Greek mythology, Uranus was the father of Saturn. King George named William Herschel his Royal Astronomer. The position came with a yearly salary. Now William Herschel could devote his time to stargazing.
William Herschel came back to his planet Uranus often. In 1787, he discovered that two moons circled it. He named them Titania and Oberon from characters in Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In 1816, King George conferred upon William Herschel the title of knight--Sir William Herschel. Despite the honor, William Herschel remained a simple Christian, devout and humble. He was noted for his kindness. He believed the heavens revealed the work of God. He once said, "The astronomer who isn't devout must be insane."
Herschel died in 1819 at the age of 84. By coincidence, 84 years is the time for Uranus to orbit the sun once. William Herschel is remembered as the amateur astronomer who discovered a new planet with a homemade telescope set up in his English garden.
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