A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter II
The progress of modern astronomy
William Herschel
A new epoch in astronomy begins with the work of William Herschel, the Hanoverian, whom England made hers by adoption. He was a man with a positive genius for sidereal discovery. At first a mere amateur in astronomy, he snatched time from his duties as music-teacher to grind him a telescopic mirror, and began gazing at the stars. Not content with his first telescope, he made another and another, and he had such genius for the work that he soon possessed a better instrument than was ever made before. His patience in grinding the curved reflective surface was monumental. Sometimes for sixteen hours together he must walk steadily about the mirror, polishing it, without once removing his hands. Meantime his sister, always his chief lieutenant, cheered him with her presence, and from time to time put food into his mouth. The telescope completed, the astronomer turned night into day, and from sunset to sunrise, year in and year out, swept the heavens unceasingly, unless prevented by clouds or the brightness of the moon. His sister sat always at his side, recording his observations. They were in the open air, perched high at the mouth of the reflector, and sometimes it was so cold that the ink froze in the bottle in Caroline Herschel's hand; but the two enthusiasts hardly noticed a thing so common-place as terrestrial weather. They were living in distant worlds.

The results? What could they be? Such enthusiasm would move mountains. But, after all, the moving of mountains seems a liliputian task compared with what Herschel really did with those wonderful telescopes. He moved worlds, stars, a universe - even, if you please, a galaxy of universes; at least he proved that they move, which seems scarcely less wonderful; and he expanded the cosmos, as man conceives it, to thousands of times the dimensions it had before. As a mere beginning, he doubled the diameter of the solar system by observing the great outlying planet which we now call Uranus, but which he christened Georgium Sidus, in honor of his sovereign, and which his French contemporaries, not relishing that name, preferred to call Herschel.

This discovery was but a trifle compared with what Herschel did later on, but it gave him world-wide reputation none the less. Comets and moons aside, this was the first addition to the solar system that had been made within historic times, and it created a veritable furor of popular interest and enthusiasm. Incidentally King George was flattered at having a world named after him, and he smiled on the astronomer, and came with his court to have a look at his namesake. The inspection was highly satisfactory; and presently the royal favor enabled the astronomer to escape the thraldom of teaching music and to devote his entire time to the more congenial task of star-gazing.

Thus relieved from the burden of mundane embarrassments, he turned with fresh enthusiasm to the skies, and his discoveries followed one another in bewildering profusion. He found various hitherto unseen moons of our sister planets; be made special studies of Saturn, and proved that this planet, with its rings, revolves on its axis; he scanned the spots on the sun, and suggested that they influence the weather of our earth; in short, he extended the entire field of solar astronomy. But very soon this field became too small for him, and his most important researches carried him out into the regions of space compared with which the span of our solar system is a mere point. With his perfected telescopes he entered abysmal vistas which no human eve ever penetrated before, which no human mind had hitherto more than vaguely imagined. He tells us that his forty-foot reflector will bring him light from a distance of "at least eleven and three-fourths millions of millions of millions of miles" - light which left its source two million years ago. The smallest stars visible to the unaided eye are those of the sixth magnitude; this telescope, he thinks, has power to reveal stars of the 1342d magnitude.

But what did Herschel learn regarding these awful depths of space and the stars that people them? That was what the world wished to know. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, had given us a solar system, but the stars had been a mystery. What says the great reflector - are the stars points of light, as the ancients taught, and as more than one philosopher of the eighteenth century has still contended, or are they suns, as others hold? Herschel answers, they are suns, each and every one of all the millions - suns, many of them, larger than the one that is the centre of our tiny system. Not only so, but they are moving suns. Instead of being fixed in space, as has been thought, they are whirling in gigantic orbits about some common centre. Is our sun that centre? Far from it. Our sun is only a star like all the rest, circling on with its attendant satellites - our giant sun a star, no different from myriad other stars, not even so large as some; a mere insignificant spark of matter in an infinite shower of sparks.

Nor is this all. Looking beyond the few thousand stars that are visible to the naked eye, Herschel sees series after series of more distant stars, marshalled in galaxies of millions; but at last he reaches a distance beyond which the galaxies no longer increase. And yet - so he thinks - he has not reached the limits of his vision. What then? He has come to the bounds of the sidereal system - seen to the confines of the universe. He believes that he can outline this system, this universe, and prove that it has the shape of an irregular globe, oblately flattened to almost disklike proportions, and divided at one edge - a bifurcation that is revealed even to the naked eye in the forking of the Milky Way.

This, then, is our universe as Herschel conceives it - a vast galaxy of suns, held to one centre, revolving, poised in space. But even here those marvellous telescopes do not pause. Far, far out beyond the confines of our universe, so far that the awful span of our own system might serve as a unit of measure, are revealed other systems, other universes, like our own, each composed, as he thinks, of myriads of suns, clustered like our galaxy into an isolated system - mere islands of matter in an infinite ocean of space. So distant from our universe are these now universes of Herschel's discovery that their light reaches us only as a dim, nebulous glow, in most cases invisible to the unaided eye. About a hundred of these nebulae were known when Herschel began his studies. Before the close of the century he had discovered about two thousand more of them, and many of these had been resolved by his largest telescopes into clusters of stars. He believed that the farthest of these nebulae that he could see was at least three hundred thousand times as distant from us as the nearest fixed star. Yet that nearest star - so more recent studies prove - is so remote that its light, travelling one hundred and eighty thousand miles a second, requires three and one-half years to reach our planet.

As if to give the finishing touches to this novel scheme of cosmology, Herschel, though in the main very little given to unsustained theorizing, allows himself the privilege of one belief that he cannot call upon his telescope to substantiate. He thinks that all the myriad suns of his numberless systems are instinct with life in the human sense. Giordano Bruno and a long line of his followers had held that some of our sister planets may be inhabited, but Herschel extends the thought to include the moon, the sun, the stars - all the heavenly bodies. He believes that he can demonstrate the habitability of our own sun, and, reasoning from analogy, he is firmly convinced that all the suns of all the systems are "well supplied with inhabitants." In this, as in some other inferences, Herschel is misled by the faulty physics of his time. Future generations, working with perfected instruments, may not sustain him all along the line of his observations, even, let alone his inferences. But how one's egotism shrivels and shrinks as one grasps the import of his sweeping thoughts!

Continuing his observations of the innumerable nebulae, Herschel is led presently to another curious speculative inference. He notes that some star groups are much more thickly clustered than others, and he is led to infer that such varied clustering tells of varying ages of the different nebulae. He thinks that at first all space may have been evenly sprinkled with the stars and that the grouping has resulted from the action of gravitation.

"That the Milky Way is a most extensive stratum of stars of various sizes admits no longer of lasting doubt," he declares, "and that our sun is actually one of the heavenly bodies belonging to it is as evident. I have now viewed and gauged this shining zone in almost every direction and find it composed of stars whose number ... constantly increases and decreases in proportion to its apparent brightness to the naked eye.

"Let us suppose numberless stars of various sizes, scattered over an indefinite portion of space in such a manner as to be almost equally distributed throughout the whole. The laws of attraction which no doubt extend to the remotest regions of the fixed stars will operate in such a manner as most probably to produce the following effects:

"In the first case, since we have supposed the stars to be of various sizes, it will happen that a star, being considerably larger than its neighboring ones, will attract them more than they will be attracted by others that are immediately around them; by which means they will be, in time, as it were, condensed about a centre, or, in other words, form themselves into a cluster of stars of almost a globular figure, more or less regular according to the size and distance of the surrounding stars....

"The next case, which will also happen almost as frequently as the former, is where a few stars, though not superior in size to the rest, may chance to be rather nearer one another than the surrounding ones,... and this construction admits of the utmost variety of shapes. . . .

"From the composition and repeated conjunction of both the foregoing formations, a third may be derived when many large stars, or combined small ones, are spread in long, extended, regular, or crooked rows, streaks, or branches; for they will also draw the surrounding stars, so as to produce figures of condensed stars curiously similar to the former which gave rise to these condensations.

"We may likewise admit still more extensive combinations; when, at the same time that a cluster of stars is forming at the one part of space, there may be another collection in a different but perhaps not far- distant quarter, which may occasion a mutual approach towards their own centre of gravity.

"In the last place, as a natural conclusion of the former cases, there will be formed great cavities or vacancies by the retreating of the stars towards the various centres which attract them."[1]

 Looking forward, it appears that the time must come when all the suns of a system will be drawn together and destroyed by impact at a common centre. Already, it seems to Herschel, the thickest clusters have "outlived their usefulness" and are verging towards their doom.

But again, other nebulae present an appearance suggestive of an opposite condition. They are not resolvable into stars, but present an almost uniform appearance throughout, and are hence believed to be composed of a shining fluid, which in some instances is seen to be condensed at the centre into a glowing mass. In such a nebula Herschel thinks he sees a sun in process of formation.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.