It was Richard Holme's fabulously inspiring The Age of Wonder
that introduced me to the Herschels. And I was blown away, totally smitten! I knew that at some point I'd want to learn more about them, so I eventually got round to buying this book. A short and easy read, it didn't add masses to what I'd already learned, and I think I prefer Holmes' writing style to Lemonick's. But, this said, Lemonick writes very well indeed and the book, by dint of being solely about William and Caroline, does delve a little deeper and contain a little more detail than the two chapters in Holmes' book that cover these two amazing people.
What William Herschel achieved, thanks to his audacity, industry, irrepressible and almost maniacally driven character, is simply astonishing. And that he took his sister along with him for the ride, enabling her to become a celebrated astronomer in her own right (indeed, as far as we know the world's first profesional, i.e. salaried, female astronomer*) just adds to the depth and warmth of the tale. Quite what Herschel might've been like to be around is hard to say, although he seems to have charmed most people he met, helping a complete outsider - neither a 'gentlemen' nor a professional 'natural philosopher' - become not only the world's pre-eminent astronomer, but also the greatest manufacturer of the best quality telescopes and a cosmologist of the first rank. Indeed, his work so greatly expanded our concepts of the cosmos that he might arguably be said to be in the very first rank of what today we understand to be meant by the term cosmologist.
And when you realise that he came to astronomy in his fourth decade, having up to that point made his living as a very talented multi-instrumentalist musician, composer and educator. Well, quite simply, the mind boggles! If ever there was an example of a self-made man, Herschel is it. And it turns out his father was much the same: in three generations the family rose, thanks to these two men in particular, through society like the meteors (amongst countless other stellar phenomena) William and Caroline would later study. William's father had made his son a violin, which the precocious youth taught himself to play in remarkably short order. And later in life Herschel showed the same industrious nature: when he couldn't buy mirrors of the size and quality he wanted for his ever-growing telescope obsession (ever-growing both in the scope of his ambitions and the scale of his 'scopes, so to speak) he simply - there's a misleading understatement - decided to manufacture them himself!
When William Herschel eventually dies, as related in this book, I was quite moved. Indeed, I felt bereaved: a man I'd grown to love, and perhaps even to know a little, albeit at a distinct and great remove, was gone. This is surely testimony to the vivid portrait Lemonick draws of this scientific genius. The last days of Caroline Herschel are sad for other reasons: whilst William married and had a child, which alientaed the formerly very close siblings somewhat, his sister, an amazing person in her own right, remained something of a loner, at odds with many people and much of society. The impression I got of her in Holmes' book was more appealing and cordial than the rather shrewish and judgemental portrait Lemonick draws.
The stories - and there are so many - are by turn endearing, fascinating, exciting, mind-blowing and moving. This is an excellent book with which to further your knowledge of these amazing characters. My next port of call will be Michael Hoskin's Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel
. I can't wait!
* I'm no expert in this field, but I believe - on Lemonick's evidence - that previous female 'celebrity' scientists and stargazers had - and this lessens their contributions not a jot - all been rich dilettantes.