Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I have looked further into space than any human being did before me

On this, my second visit to Bath I had another cold wet day, far from ideal for exploring this attractive little city. The tourist guide suggests a couple of museums dedicated to some of its famous inhabitants. I guess the more popular of these is the Jane Austen Centre, where those in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wash, can go to buy their Elizabeth and Darcy soap. I had other things in mind: the William Herschel Museum, especially after glancing at photo of his old house's wall plaque which said that this was where Herschel (1738-1822) discovered the planet Uranus, infrared radiation and his sister Caroline. It seemed that hide-and-seek games in the 18th century were full of surprises.

Today's caretaker at the museum, a retired schoolteacher happy to share his knowledge, said that Herschel discovered Uranus in the process of moving into this house (but never stumbling over Narnia in the upstairs wardrobe). He didn't indicate if Herschel leapt out of Bath crying "Eureka", running naked up the M4-to-be to London to tell King George III (yes the mad one) of his discovery.

While Herschel's list of scientific achievements is long - in addition to the above, he was the first to understand the shape of the Milky Way galaxy, coined the word asteroid, and wrote of beings with large heads who lived on the cool surface of the Sun. was the major telescope-maker of the 18th century - these endeavours began as sidelines to his first career as a musician and composer. A prolific writer of symphonies and concerti, he was an organist and director of many concerts in Bath.

His major assistant in all these works was his sister Caroline, who he brought over from their native Hanover to sing at his Bath concerts. He tutored her in English, mathematics and astronomy. It's possible that her native talent in the sciences exceeded his.

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