By Michael Hoskin
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 238 pages
It was a lot for one man to accomplish but William Herschel, the eighteenth century German-born polymath, achieved distinction three times over. Author Michael Hoskin weaves his biography with admiration and even affection, bringing together the personal and professional life of the composer, astronomer, and telescope maker who became Astronomer to the Court at Windsor, the court of King George III. Herschel’s sister Caroline, as “the woman who stands behind every successful man,” was unschooled when she escaped domestic drudgery to join her brother in England. At first they lived in the north of England, where she foreshortened her own musical opportunities while William composed 24 symphonies, played in several orchestras, and taught four instruments before lifting his eyes to the heavens and exploring the mysteries Kepler and Galileo had identified.
Readers unfamiliar with astronomical concepts may not fully appreciate the remarkable legacy of the man who reached beyond our familiar planetary system to reveal a seemingly boundless universe. Caroline’s journal, erudite and witty, and the invaluable scientific assistance she provided, introduce us to extraordinary lives. Hoskin’s scholarly book, so charmingly written, supplies the context academically and chronically. The pages include numerous drawings and gorgeous color plates.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster