Archive for William Herschel

Haydn and the Herschels

Posted in History, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I was listening to a broadcast of a concert performance of Haydn’s “Creation” on BBC Radio 3, featuring the London Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington. During the interval (between Parts I and II) the presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch cast doubt in the story (which I’ve heard quite often), that Joseph Haydn was at least partly inspired to write The Creation by a trip he took during a stay in England to see the observatory of astronomer William Herschel. This story is repeated in a number of places around the web, including here, from which source I quote:

On 15 June 1792. Joseph Haydn visited William Herschel – basoonist, composer, astronomer – at his observatory near Slough. Herschel introduced Haydn to the Milky Way and, quite possibly, the planet Uranus, which he’d discovered ten years earlier. Some say Haydn took this glimpse of the infinite as the inspiration for his oratorio The Creation. Seems plausible.

It does indeed seem plausible. It is a matter of record that Haydn did  visit the Observatory House in Slough on 15th June 1792, which is where William Herschel lived with his sister Caroline at the time. (Interestingly, the day before this visit Haydn was at Ascot watching the horse-racing.)

However, according to William Herschel’s own records he wasn’t at the Observatory House on this day. In fact he had been away since May 1792 visiting various locations in England and Wales, before eventually arriving in Glasgow to receive an honorary degree. The notion that Herschel provided Haydn with the inspiration to write The Creation is therefore false.

Or is it?

William Herschel may not have been at home when Haydn called on 15th June 1792, but Caroline certainly was: Haydn’s name is recorded in her visitor’s book on that date. In his diary Haydn makes a note of the dimensions of the telescope (40ft) but does not mention actually looking through it, which is not surprising if he was there during the day.  There’s no other record of this visit of which I’m aware that says for sure what happened on that day, but Caroline certainly could have described what she had observed during her career as an astronomer, both on her own and with William, and also shown Haydn drawings, catalogues and star charts. Caroline Herschel was an extremely accomplished astronomer in her own right, so who’s to say it was not she rather than her brother who provided Haydn with the inspiration for his oratorio?

So it could well be that it was Herschel that inspired The Creation after all, but Caroline rather than William…

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Astronomy and Forensic Science – The Herschel Connection

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on April 27, 2015 by telescoper

When I was in Bath on Friday evening I made a point of visiting the Herschel Museum, which is located in the house in which Sir William Herschel lived for a time, before moving to Slough.
image

Unfortunately I got there too late to go inside. It did remind me however of an interesting connection between astronomy and forensic science, through a certain William Herschel..

When I give popular talks about Cosmology,  I sometimes look for appropriate analogies or metaphors in detective fiction or television programmes about forensic science. I think cosmology is methodologically similar to forensic science because it is generally necessary in both these fields to proceed by observation and inference, rather than experiment and deduction: cosmologists have only one Universe;  forensic scientists have only one scene of the crime. They can collect trace evidence, look for fingerprints, establish or falsify alibis, and so on. But they can’t do what a laboratory physicist or chemist would typically try to do: perform a series of similar experimental crimes under slightly different physical conditions. What we have to do in cosmology is the same as what detectives do when pursuing an investigation: make inferences and deductions within the framework of a hypothesis that we continually subject to empirical test. This process carries on until reasonable doubt is exhausted, if that ever happens.

Of course there is much more pressure on detectives to prove guilt than there is on cosmologists to establish the truth about our Cosmos. That’s just as well, because there is still a very great deal we do not know about how the Universe works. I have a feeling that I’ve stretched this analogy to breaking point but at least it provides some kind of excuse for mentioning the Herschel connection.

In fact the Herschel connection comes through William James Herschel, the grandson of William Herschel and the eldest son of John Herschel, both of whom were eminent astronomers. William James Herschel was not an astronomer, but an important figure in the colonial establishment in India. In the context relevant to this post, however, his claim to fame is that he is credited with being the first European to have recognized the importance of fingerprints for the purposes of identifying individuals. William James Herschel started using fingerprints in this way in India in 1858; some examples are shown below (taken from the wikipedia page).

Fingerprints_taken_by_William_James_Herschel_1859-1860

Later,  in 1877 at Hooghly (near Calcutta) he instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts and deeds to prevent the then-rampant repudiation of signatures and he registered government pensioners’ fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner’s death. Herschel also fingerprinted prisoners upon sentencing to prevent various frauds that were attempted in order to avoid serving a prison sentence.

The use of fingerprints in solving crimes was to come much later, but there’s no doubt that Herschel’s work on this was an important step.

Hubble Images With Music By Herschel

Posted in History, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 20, 2014 by telescoper

Too busy for a full post today, so here’s a little stocking filler. The, perhaps familiar, pictures are taken by the Hubble Space Telescope but the music is by noted astronomer (geddit?) Sir William Herschel – the Second Movement of his Chamber Symphony In F Major, marked Adagio e Cantabile. Although best known as an astronomer Herschel was a capable musician and composer with a style very obviously influenced by his near contemporary Georg Frideric Handel. Although music of this era puts me on a High Harpsichord Alert, I thought I’d share this example of music for those of you unfamiliar with his work…

The Heat Death of Herschel

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 13, 2013 by telescoper

Most of the astronomers who read this blog will have heard the news that the Herschel Space Observatory is running out of the Helium that it has been using to keep it cool enough (~1.4K) to be sensitive to the far-infra-red radiation emitted by very distant objects.

There’s a gallery of wonderful images obtained by Herschel since it was launched in 2009 at the news item linked to above, but my favourite is one of the least photogenic:

_66205134_goodsn_3colour_cropped

Many of these fuzzy blobs correspond to immensely distant galaxies; what we see is starlight from very young stars absorbed by vast amounts of cosmic dust and then re-radiated in the infra-red. Understanding these sources is decidedly non-trivial and it will take many years to get all the information out that is hidden in images like this.

Anyway, one thing worth pointing out here is that what is going on now with Herschel is not some kind of failure. Quite the contrary, in fact. The original mission lifetime was planned to be three years, and Herschel has now been operating for nine months longer than that. The supply of Helium was always going to be the limiting factor as the spacecraft operates at the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system, which is almost a million miles away and thus too far to be replenished. When the Helium does run out, Herschel will rapidly heat up to the point where its detectors are swamped. It will then be blind.

I was at this point going to make a cheap joke to the effect that after years on its own in the dark preoccupied with images of heavenly bodies, it was entirely predictable that Herschel would go blind. But I decided not to. I’ll save that kind of off-colour remark for Twitter…

ps. Coincidentally, on this day (March 13th) in 1781,  William Herschel  discovered the planet Uranus. The telescope is named in Herschel’s honour because he was also the first person to demonstrate the existence of infra-red radiation.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 22

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on April 26, 2010 by telescoper

I’m indebted to Matt Griffin for drawing my attention to the remarkable likeness between Martin Amis, novelist son of a novelist father, and William Herschel, astronomer father of an astronomer son. I wonder if by any chance they might be related?

Martin Amis

William Herschel