William Huggins

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William Huggins

In the mid 1860s, astronomers were just beginning to use a new tool to study the heavens. Called spectroscopy, it allowed them to split the light from an astronomical object into a rainbow of colors. Individual light and dark lines etched onto the rainbow revealed an object’s composition, motion, and more.

But a tool is worthless without a skilled practitioner to use it. And for at least two decades, British astronomer William Huggins was the master craftsman of spectroscopy.

Huggins was born 200 years ago today. By the time he was 18, he owned both a microscope and a telescope. He planned to enter Cambridge University. Instead, he had to take over his father’s business. But he continued to study science. Later, he sold the family business and built his own observatory, on Tulse Hill, near London. He lived and worked there for the next five decades.

By the early 1860s, scientists had used spectroscopy to identify the chemical elements present in the Sun. Huggins applied the same technique to other stars — and succeeded. He found that the stars are all put together much like the Sun, but their chemical composition can be quite different. Later, he measured how fast the stars are moving away from Earth.

Huggins married another astronomer, Margaret Lindsay Murray. From their observatory on Tulse Hill, they worked together on many research projects, until William’s death, in 1910.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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