The eighteenth century astronomer William Herschel is best known for discovering the planet Uranus, but as this compact biography brings out, Herschel did much more, particularly in his theories on the nature and scale of the cosmos.
Michael Lemonick does a workman like job of telling Herschel’s life story, from military band member to leading astronomer, and the book is probably most interesting when exploring the character of Herschel’s long suffering (though some of it was self-inflicted) sister Caroline.
There’s nothing wrong with this book, but it doesn’t really present anything new about Herschel, nor does it really bring a spark of excitement to what should be quite a remarkable life story.
There’s one point when the author veers completely off-beam. We are told that ‘William Herschel was now forty-three years old at a time when long life was uncommon, if not unheard of. He was determined to understand nothing less than the structure of the universe and its contents, and had no idea how much time was left to do so.’ This perpetuates the myth that at a time when the average lifespan in the UK was probably less than 50, that 43 was old. But that average age reflects the huge infant mortality of the time. If a man of good means reached 43, he was pretty likely also to reach his late sixties – so Herschel was unlikely to have considered himself about to drop off his perch.
At risk of damning with faint praise, there’s nothing wrong with the book, but it’s not a biography to really get your teeth into. If you want a really good biography of Herschel, see Discoverers of the Universe.