BBC Sky at Night Magazine
The inspirational Herschels
The dedication of the 18th-century astronomical pair gives Janet Wilkinson motivation
On 13 March 1781, astronomer William Herschel went into the back garden of his home in Bath for another night of observation. As he scanned the sky with a home-built telescope, he made an astonishing discovery – the planet Uranus.
Today, that home is the Herschel Museum of Astronomy (herschelmuseum. org.uk), a celebration of the stars, Herschel and his sister, Caroline – a great astronomer in her own right. It runs events to spread knowledge of the remarkable pair.
“In November 2019 we managed to capture a glimpse of Uranus – in the very garden from where William Herschel discovered it – during a public stargazing evening,” says Janet Wilkinson, a former volunteer who now works at the museum.
To run these evenings, the museum relies heavily on a group of volunteers. It isn’t hard to see what inspires such dedication when you look at the Herschels’ story – German immigrants from a relatively poor background who rose up through society, with William eventually named the Astronomer Royal.
“Caroline experienced even more prejudice as she was a woman and disfigured by smallpox,” says Wilkinson. “Yet she would spend the night at the telescope alongside her brother.
Both were dedicated, crafting their own equipment. “I think their work ethic is what brings people to volunteer,” says Wilkinson. “It’s important to recognise how scientific contributions of the past – particularly women’s – shape our understanding of the world. We mustn’t forget how these leaps in understanding, and how the Herschels’ dexterity, skill and dedication, moved our civilisation forward.”