William Herschel, an introduction

image-of-William_HerschelLast half term my dad came to stay. At one point in one of our many conversations he mentioned having read my recent article on William Herschel but then added he hasn’t really understood it. Now, my dad is a clever man, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my dad. He speaks several languages, knows everything there is to know about French-Canadian literature, and he can play the bassoon, so I found it kind of worrying that he hadn’t found it a clear, informative and effortless read. Had I really become so specialist and obscure that I couldn’t tell when I was being so? Possibly. But then it occurred to me, OK, if that is the case, maybe that gives me a new and useful reason to start writing this blog again. Is that a thing in academic blogging? Concise, outsider guides to the author’s research, paper by paper? And if not, why not? In case it is, or perhaps as a pioneer in this reimagining of academic blogging, I offer this very brief introduction to my piece on William Herschel.

For the proper article, complete with footnotes, please see: ‘Philomaths, Herschel, and the myth of the self-taught man’, Notes & Records of the Royal Society (2014), 68, 207-225.

The central premise of this paper is that no one learns alone. No one is ever entirely ‘self-taught’. Just as today we look back at the big names from the history of science, and find that actually they were helped by servants, assistants, instrument makers and so on, the same is also true for how they learned their craft. William Herschel is often characterised as an immigrant musician with a gift for astronomy who taught himself, discovered a planet, and became a household name. While nothing about that is entirely untrue, it is interesting to consider how he taught himself, and in doing so, we find out what it was like not just for him, but for many interested dabblers in scientific fields in England at the end of the eighteenth century.

William Herschel’s journey from jobbing musician to world renowned astronomer can be seen as a series of steps through a series of networks. At first he simply gets to know what the class he serves as a musician are interested in. Next he finds friends among the ‘philomaths’ a loose network of students, school teachers, country gentlemen and the like who like to read up on all the latest discoveries, learn a bit of maths and possibly try to spot a comet or two. Once he has mastered all they and their books can teach him, he finds a way to get himself invited to join a local Literary and Philosophical Society, one of many cropping up in provincial towns across the country. Here William learned how to talk and write like a natural philosopher (eighteenth century term for scientist). He made friends too with people in even higher places so that when he did happen to discover the planet Uranus he knew how to write it up to get it taken seriously, who to send it to, and which of his friends was best placed to get it into the right hands.

My story ends with William being welcomed into the Royal Society (then dominated by the great & the good, the rich & the powerful), and celebrated by astronomers and mathematicians abroad. While highly respected, he saw in his the work of his French colleagues, a new goal to which he might aspire. He now wanted, & through his son set out to achieve, to master the branch of mathematics that developed out of Leibniz’s version of calculus.