Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Family Line of Work

So 321 years ago tomorrow, William and Mary Herschel welcomed their only son together, John, into the world in Slough, Berkshire, in England. William was an immigrant to England from the Electorate of Hanover, which would later become part of Germany.

As time went on, John became interested in his dad's work and chose to follow him. That might seem daunting at first -- William Herschel was the first person to discover a planet other than those known in antiquity, locating it in 1781. He at first tried to call it "the Georgian Star" after King George III, but that didn't stick anywhere outside of England. The French push to call it "Herschel" also didn't take, and the agreed-upon name eventually became "Uranus," to the delight of nine-year-old boys (and those who think like nine-year-old boys) ever since. William also found two moons of his new planet, as well as two moons for the already-known Saturn.

You might think John a little intimidated by his father's accomplishments but he may have actually exceeded them in many ways. He never found a planet, but he catalogued thousands of astronomical objects and did manage in the meantime to locate a few more moons for the outer planets. John's General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters, later the General Catalogue of 10,300 Multiple and Double Stars, is the basis for the New General Catalogue astronomers still use today. If you ever see an object identified with the letters "NGC" at the front, that identification traces its roots back to John Herschel.

In the meantime, John also developed much of the basis of the chemical process of film photography, catalogued several hundred botanical specimens near his astronomical observing site in South Africa, wrote the entries in the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica (8th edition) for meteorology and the telescope and translated The Iliad into English.

And he and his wife Margaret raised 12 children; all of them lived to adulthood.

You can read about John's astronomical work in this month's edition of Astronomy magazine, but the story is behind the paywall.

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