Discoverers of the Universe – the Herschels

By Michael Hoskin. Hardback. 272pp. Price: $29.96 (US) £19.96 (UK). Publisher: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 0691148333.

Discoverers of the Universe

William and Caroline Herschel were the binary stars of the cosmos. The sibling astronomers, who worked together during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, transformed our understanding of the Universe, rewrote the language of the solar system and pioneered the science of deep space.

Their triumphs were revolutionary and blazed a trail across the heavens for others to follow. But almost as astonishing as these stellar achievements were the Herschels themselves, as Michael Hoskin so brilliantly shows us in this book.

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In mesmerising detail, he lays out the lives of these incredible German-born stargazers. There is William, an accomplished court composer who finds his true genius lies not in music but in his passion for amateur astronomy. Then there is Caroline, his devoted younger sister, whose own talents blossomed during the long cold nights she spent toiling at her brother’s elbow.

It is a tale of fierce ambition, bitter disappointments and glittering successes, riven through with the complex emotions of their unique scientific partnership. It is an unbelievable story told with bravura.

William first made his mark in his forties, when observations made on his home-made telescope led to the discovery of Uranus. This was followed by an invitation to become Court Astronomer to King George the Third – and from then on his star was in the ascendent.

He went on to discover infrared radiation, decode the true dynamic nature of our solar system and track 2,500 nebulae. He even found time in his astonishingly active career to coin the term “asteroid”. Beside his scientific work he also established an unrivalled reputation as the builder of telescopes, some of which were 20ft high.

In between lending her brother crucial assistance in his work, Caroline carved her own niche in cosmological history, becoming a celebrated comet hunter – discovering nine – and pioneering the role of women in science.

The achievements of the Herschels are relatively well documented, but thanks to painstaking research, peerless knowledge of his subject and a rare talent for story-telling, Hoskin manages to bring both them and the England they inhabited gloriously alive.

Discoverers of the Universe deserves a place on any bookshelf.

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