John Herschel was bullied at school so his parents had him tutored at home. Born the only child of the astronomer William Herschel, who discovered Uranus and cataloged the objects of the northern sky, John grew up knowing the most famous scientists of his day. The young man shot past his rivals in mathematics and science. At Cambridge, he placed first in mathematics exams. At twenty-one, he became the youngest person admitted to the Royal Society.
Traveling the European continent, he met other great scientists. He was so impressed with French mathematics that he translated three volumes worth of papers into English. Abandoning Newton's clumsy calculus, he adopted the clearer system created by Newton's German rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and convinced the English to do so, too. These were small potatoes for the man who became world-famous as an astronomer.
William Herschel had urged his son to enter the ministry, which he saw as a safe civil service career. John balked. He tried his hand at law instead. When his father died, John used his inheritance to strike out on his own. He sailed to South Africa with his wife, Margaret Stewart to scan the southern skies as William had scanned the northern. The pair lived there for several years. The British government offered John a salary, but he refused it, preferring to stick to his own researches.
With techniques learned from his father, John ground lenses and built some of the largest telescopes in the world. Through these scopes, he compared stellar magnitudes (true brightness) by contrasting them with the moon's image which he reduced to a pinprick for contrast. John was fascinated with double stars. He logged over 1,200 new examples. The importance of double stars (binaries) is that they rotate around each other. By observing their rotations, he could calculate their masses and prove that Newton's laws applied to distant stellar bodies.
John also cataloged many nebulae (gas clouds and galaxies) and showed that most consisted of faint stars. He made calculations of the density of the Milky Way and tried to determine its structure. He tied together all of the day's astronomical knowledge in a popular textbook. Space does not permit us to list all of his contributions to science and technology. For example, when he heard the first report on daguerreotype photography, he was able to develop a similar process within a week and to create a completely new photographic processes afterwards.
John was happy with his wife, Margaret Stewart. She was the daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian. Under Margaret's influence, John underwent a genuine conversion experience. Men like John Herschel give the lie to the notion that great scientists cannot be genuine Christians. His faith fired him with zeal for educational reforms in South Africa--zeal that spurred the development of public education in that nation. One reason that John wanted public education was "to fit [students] for a higher state of existence, by teaching them those [things] which connect them with their Maker and Redeemer." He said of the Bible, "All human discoveries seem to be made only for the purpose of confirming more and more strongly the truths that come from on high and are contained in the sacred writings."
Upon his death, on this day, May 12, 1871, Sir John Herschel was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey alongside Sir Isaac Newton.
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Last updated July, 2007.