Skip to main content

Discoverers of the Universe – Michael Hoskin *****

This was a really refreshing book to read. We’ve been inundated lately with title after title about the latest tiny discovery in biology, or some new and complex theory in physics. Here we have a perfect scientific biography of underappreciated contributors to our understanding of the universe – William Herschel and his sister Caroline. Some of the recent scientific biographies have been overblown, but this gets the balance just right. It’s not too long because it doesn’t try to cram in every single bit of research, and it achieves a good mix of the people and the science.
Michael Hoskin leads us expertly and elegantly through the Herschels’ early life (always the hardest part because it has nothing to do with their achievements), their move to England, their musical careers and the development of astronomy from a hobby to a burning professional passion. At least for William. Just as interesting and less covered elsewhere is Caroline’s reluctant acceptance of her role as helper in William’s work on double stars and nebulae, plus discoverer of seven or eight comets in her own right. She did it, it seems, because of an intense sense of duty, but she really didn’t have William’s passion for the subject.
Everyone knows that Herschel discovered Uranus (and attempted to call it George, a name that would have caused even more giggles than the one it ended up with) – but arguably of much more importance were his systematic scans of the night sky from Slough (always the wonderful mix of exotic and down to earth here), then a tiny village on the outskirts of Windsor. And his crowning glory was his exploration of nebulae and the theories he developed that suggested they were vast collections of stars – almost island universes – and that the Milky Way was one of these, an idea that wouldn’t be accepted by the scientific community until the 20th century. It wasn’t all right – there was a lot of confusion over whether all nebulae were like this, or whether some were stars being born – but Herschel still came up with some powerful theories.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the book’s very summary treatment of Herschel’s son John. He really ought to have been given equal billing with his father and aunt. Not only did he repeat William’s scan of the northern skies, correcting many mistakes, he then did the same for the southern skies, making him the first and only person to singlehandedly check out the whole panorama of space. And he had many more scientific achievements – perhaps Hoskin is saving him up for a book of his own.
The other thing I disliked was the much repeated suggestion that Herschel did away with Newton’s mechanical, clockwork universe and changed the view of it to be an evolutionary one. Hoskin actually refers to it as ‘biological’. This is an analogy too far. The universe is not a biological evolutionary system. It doesn’t reproduce and select on mutations. It doesn’t rely on organic processes. In fact, Herschel’s universe was still mechanical and clockwork. It’s a mistake to suggest that mechanical clockwork structures can’t progress – ‘evolution’ is not a synonym for ‘change’. It was only with 20th century physics that we moved away from a mechanical universe to a probabilistic one. The key aspect of Newton’s clockwork was that given sufficient knowledge of the components and state of the universe you could predict what would happen step-by-step indefinitely. Herschel did nothing to take this away.
This minor irritation, though, comes through only in an admittedly much repeated, but tiny part of this book. Overall it is a hugely readable and enjoyable account of the life and work of these two remarkable individuals. William and Caroline Herschel deserve a brighter position in the stellar pantheon of astronomers, and Discoverers of the Universe puts them firmly in that place. Recommended.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

David Latchman - Interview

Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic and author of a number of science titles, currently holding the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London.  As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Latchman is the chief academic and administrative officer, and has been responsible for the development of the university since his appointment in 2003.   Professor Latchman serves as Chairman of the trustees of the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, an organisation dedicated the empowerment of the Jewish community through education, employment, medical advancement, and welfare. He also serves as a trustee of the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, as well as a number of other committees centred around education, and scientific and medical research in the UK and Israel.  This interview is for National Book Lovers' Day (August 9th). Why should books be important to us? Books have always been a big part of my life, and for many reasons. My love for them sta

Hothouse Earth - Bill McGuire ****

There have been many books on global warming, but I can't think of any I've read that are so definitively clear about the impact that climate change is going to have on our lives. The only reason I've not given it five stars is because it's so relentless miserable - I absolute accept the reality of Bill McGuire's message, but you have to have a particularly perverted kind of 'I told you so' attitude to actually enjoy reading this. McGuire lays out how climate change is likely to continue and the impacts it will have on our lives in a stark way. Unlike many environmental writers, he is honest about the uncertainty, telling us 'Despite meticulous and comprehensive modelling, we just don't know how bad things will get, nor can we know.' But any climate change deniers seeing this as an escape clause entirely miss the point. The uncertainty is over how bad things will be, but not over whether or not things will be bad. As we are told, 'tipping poi

Philip Ball - Four Way Interview

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and was an editor at Nature for more than twenty years. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and has written many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and wider culture, including H 2 O: A Biography of Water, Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour , The Music Instinct , and Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. His book Critical Mass won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books. Ball is also a presenter of Science Stories, the BBC Radio 4 series on the history of science. He trained as a chemist at the University of Oxford and as a physicist at the University of Bristol. He is also the author of The Modern Myths . He lives in London. His latest title is The Book of Minds . Why science? As the pandemic has shown, there has never been a time when an understanding of science is essential for making informed decisions. But Covid-19 has also revealed the process of science in action, with