Herschel’s telescope

Working in museums you spend a lot of time thinking, ‘why might that be interesting to other people?’. So when it comes to the Herschels I am dimly aware that broadly speaking astronomers love William, politically aware educators love Caroline, John has a handful of fans on the fringes of various disciplines (astronomy, photography, history of various things scientific and intellectual), and no one but me has even heard of the rest. Which is why the BBC stargazing Live’s piece on the Herschel 20ft took me a bit by surprise.
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Here is a telescope that William Herschel built (cue all sorts of interesting asides on what it means to be the named maker of a telescope in the 18th c and the teams of uncredited individuals involved in the process). A telescope he used in partnership with his sister Caroline (women in science stories aside) and was effectively the culmination of his project to build ever bigger telescopes (aside on why this wasn’t the 40ft). It was the telescope he trained his son John to use, who in turn then took it to South Africa, to use to complete his father’s work for the southern hemisphere and to show visitors the sky when they dropped round for ‘tea and stars’. It was the telescope John’s children grew up with and grew old with until in the 1950s it was finally sold to the National Maritime Museum who have since displayed it, stored it and, loaned it to museums around the world.
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There was so much potential for historians of science in this piece, but what did it actually deliver? Well, it looked fun. All those people who got together to build the telescope looked like they had a really fun time. Herschel was mentioned a lot, I can’t deny I was delighted with that. But then ‘the history bit’ was just a 30 second interview with Allan Chapman, who was marvellous but cut short, tacked onto the end. It was as though they though they should have some history since they were rebuilding a historic telescope, but just couldn’t quite see the point.

How could it have been better? I’ve complained before about people criticising popularisers of science for their shaky grasp of history without attempting to say how the story might be changed but still remain entertaining, so I feel I should at least try to offer a solution. Assuming the piece had to remain the same length, they could still have talked as they built about what they were doing and in what way it was similar or different to the past. In particular, they showed very clearly that the telescope could neither have been built nor operated by one person; they could have mentioned there that in William Herschel’s time, those people would have been servants or workmen or women and so discounted from the record. They could have talked about the materials they were using and why they were chosen. They could have talked about the experience of transporting this contraption and using it in different climates and what it must have felt like growing up with such a thing in your back garden with all the visitors it inevitably attracted. In other words, they could have made the history an integrated part of the piece instead of a tack on half-heartedly at the end.

A long time ago, I assumed that history of science more naturally lent itself to the kind of edu-tainment I enjoy watching than science alone because it offered stories where science offered facts. At the time, my general impression of science programming – rightly or wrongly – was that it consisted mainly of ‘look at these lions we’ve cleverly filmed’, ‘here are some facts about galaxies’ or ‘see our massive telescopes’ awe and wonder type spectacles. Since then however, it seems to me, scientists have got a lot better at telling stories. Like good science fiction, they can leave us pondering the nature of existence, and what it means to be human although so can history of science. All of which raises the question, what can historians offer now? Well, we still can offer good stories. Jim Al-Khalili knows this – there are historians of science involved in many of his programmes – but do the others know? And what about TV historians, it always seems harder to identify how and where they might include more science, but I think it might still be worth thinking all the time about where our subject fits in. Whether that might eventually lead to a few programmes of our own, well, who knows?