Sand and Stars

Herschel… Symphonies and Uranus

Manuscript of Symphony No. 15 in E flat major, by William Herschel

3 Dec 2016

Who amongst us isn’t dumbfounded at the genius and mighty life-work of William Herschel?

Arguably the greatest of all astronomical observers, I was wondering last night what he would have said if, at the height of his music career, it had been suggested to him that the world would forget that he was ever a musician and composer, and would remember him as one of the most brilliant astronomers that the ages have ever known?

He was, in fact, a very successful musician. His career in music began when he was employed as a military bandmaster, then as a music teacher and organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath, England. He also gave concerts, and composed 24 symphonies, 14 concertos and various other works (the picture is the score of his beautiful Symphony No 15).

By 1770 Herschel was director of the Bath orchestra and life in this cultured regency town in the Age of Enlightenment could not have been better.

Oh yes, it could.

On May 10, 1773, at the age of 35, he purchased the book Astronomy explained upon Sir Isaac Newton’s Principles, written by the Scottish astronomer, instrument and globe maker, James Ferguson (1710-1776).

And with it, the stars conquered the semi-quavers.

He also purchased two books by Robert Smith (1689-1768), an English mathematician and music theorist – Harmonics, or The philosophy of musical sounds and A Compleat System of Opticks. Consequently, he started to become a skilled maker of the most powerful telescopes of his time…

Herschel’s 20-foot telescope (left) and his 40-foot telescope (right). The 40-foot was cumbersome and ate up too much observation time, so he only used it rarely, using his 20-foot telescope most of the time.
“Having already some knowledge of the science of optics, I resolved to manufacture my own telescopes, and after many continuous, determined trials, 1 finally succeeded in completing a so-called Newtonian instrument, seven feet in length. From this I advanced to one of ten feet, and at last to one of twenty, for I had fully made up my mind to carry on the improvement of my Telescopes as far as it could possibly be done. When I had carefully and thoroughly perfected the great instrument in all its parts, I made systematic use of it in my observations of the heavens, first forming a determination never to pass by any.”

In March 1774 he began keeping an astronomical journal to record his findings, and…

“All this while I continued my astronomical observations & nothing seemed now wanting to compleat my felicity than suficient time to enjoy my telescopes to which I was so much attached that I used frequently to run from the Harpsichord at the Theatre to look at the stars during the time of an act & return to the next Music.”

William Herschel (1738-1822) and the 2007 Hubble image of Uranus
William Herschel (1738-1822) and the 2007 Hubble image of Uranus

Although the stars were waxing and his musical career waning, he wasn’t able to give up his career in music and concentrate on astronomy until May 19, 1782, when he was awarded an annual grant by King George III and appointed Court Astronomer for discovering Uranus…

“On Tuesday, the 13th of March, 1781, between ten and eleven in the evening, while I was examining the small stars in the neighborhood of H Geminorum, I perceived one that appeared visibly larger than the rest: being struck with its uncommon magnitude, I compared it to H Geminorum and the small star in the quartile between Auriga and Gemini, and finding it so much larger than either of them, suspected it to be a comet.” It wasn’t a comet. It was the seventh planet in our solar system.

Herschel wanted to call this planet Georgium Sidus (The Georgian Star) to honour King George III.  Others sought a less English-centric name and in 1850 the planet was officially designated as Uranus.

Last night I observed Uranus, sailing among the stars of Pisces.

I don’t listen to music when I am out under the stars, preferring instead to keep one ear cocked in the hopes of hearing Pythagoras’ metaphysical Harmony of the Spheres. But last night, because I was looking at the planet that he discovered, I listened to a number of Herschel’s symphonies.

They really are exquisite; to me they speak of the innovation and creativity of Herschel’s well-ordered and complex mind. Their carefully constructed structure is neither derivative nor forgettable… it is simply… well, all I can say is that it is an awe-inspiring and transcendent experience to listen to his beautiful music while gazing up at the night sky he loved so well, and the planet he discovered.

Uranus shows as the most beautiful pale blue dot. It is beyond amazing to see its tiny disk, a chillingly remote and blue world, reigning over unthinkable depths.

Surely the most beautiful picture of Uranus, taken by Voyager 2 on Jan 25, 1986, as the spacecraft left the planet behind and set forth on the cruise to Neptune. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Surely one of the most beautiful photos of Uranus, taken by Voyager 2 on Jan 25, 1986, as the spacecraft left the planet behind and set forth on its cruise to Neptune. Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

And there in the eyepiece, showing as the two tiniest specks of light, the two Uranian moons Herschel discovered – Titania and Oberon. I blocked Uranus’ glare with an occulting bar I made some time back for my eyepiece, used very high magnification and the two tiny moons popped into view; an astonishingly amazing sight to see these little moons over such a vast distance!

It was a treat beyond all treats, looking at Uranus and in my mind’s eye seeing the enormous planet with its bizarre sideways rotation, its 13 rings and 27 moons, its frigid –216°C atmosphere and howling 900 km/h winds, and its sludgey interior of water, methane, and ammonia ices under tremendous pressure.

And one certainly grasps the brevity of human life when you get a glimpse of this enormous planet and consider its slow and implacable cartwheel around our sun – it takes Uranus 84 years to orbit the Sun, thus it has only made 2.8 orbits since Herschel discovered it 235 years ago.

Frankly, I couldn’t think of any better way to spend an evening than gazing at the planet William Herschel discovered, and listening to the beautiful music that was born in his extraordinary brain.

Copyright © Susan Young 2016