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William Herschel II

November 15, 2013

William Herschel didn’t start studying the night sky until he was in his mid-30s. But he quickly made up for lost time. He made thousands of discoveries, and today is considered one of the greats of astronomy.

Herschel was born 275 years ago today in Germany. For many years, he earned his living as a musician. He fled to England at 19 to avoid a war, and 15 years later brought along his young sister, Caroline, as an assistant.

Not long afterwards, William and Caroline started looking at the skies, using telescopes Herschel built himself. Herschel discovered hundreds of double stars, and was the first to realize that many of them are gravitationally bound to each other.

And in 1781, he made a discovery that secured both his fortune and his place in history: a planet beyond the orbit of Saturn. Herschel named it George’s Planet in honor of King George III. The king was so pleased that he appointed Herschel as his personal astronomer. The post carried a big enough salary that Herschel could devote all of his time to astronomy. The name George’s Planet didn’t stick, though — other astronomers decided on Uranus.

With his new financial freedom, Herschel built bigger telescopes. He discovered moons of Uranus and Saturn, and about 2500 “nebulae” — objects such as galaxies and stellar nurseries. And in the lab, he discovered a new form of energy — the infrared.

These discoveries and many others earned a lasting reputation for this astronomy latecomer.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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