Skip to main content

The Georgian Star – Michael D. Lemonick ***

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.
Review by Peter Spitz


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…