Writing Out Loud: A CELEBRATION OF COMETS, ASTEROIDS AND URANUS

By George Stahl

We are time travelers once again. This time, we are in the year 1755. The place, Germany. A young man with a great deal of musical talent is tinkering around with a small group of his peers out back in the family houses carriage house. They are jamming on some used instruments of the time, creating more sounds than actual music. Their ensemble included a violin, a hurdy gurdy and a drone zither, two mandolins, a kettle drum and a something resembling a piano called…a piano. There was one of their group, the boy who lived in the house with the carriage house studio, who played a guitar similar to the one mastered by, of all people, Johann Sebastian Bach.

The hour was getting late, and a few dogs in the area were barking along to the not-so-melodious sounds of the young musicians. As a result, the guitar player’s father came out and asked them to stop for the night. After some going back and forth and a negotiating time, it ended up the boy’s father sat in and joined them. His name was Issak Herschel. The boy with the guitar, Issak’s son, was Friedrich. The group played together for a few years, mostly around their home town until 1759 when Frieddy, as he was called, decided to move to England to pursue his career as a music teacher and organist. As a result, their band, called ‘The Kafers,’ split up after a few months.

Things did not go as planned for Frieddy either. Fortunately he had a backup interest. One he could eventually make money at. While he was in school in Germany, he studied astronomy, and he started working with the local university and astronomy society, grinding and polishing mirrors for telescopes. He was able to build his own telescope and start on his quest to discover new worlds.

In the meantime, his younger sister, Caroline, came to England to be with her brother and also to pursue a career as a singer. She had landed some jobs on stage, but again nothing like she had expected. So, she discarded the idea and became Frieddy’s full time assistant.

By 1781, the two had been working regularly, tracking objects in the skies, documenting what they had found and Caroline had become an accredited astronomer in her own right. Because they were being recognized for their discoveries by then, Frieddy had changed his name, realizing no one was going to take him too seriously with a musician’s name like that. He was now known by his middle name, William.

In their backyard observatory, using a 20-foot telescope William had designed and built, he noticed an object moving across the sky, in the same spot for several nights. At first, he thought it was a comet on the lines of Halley’s, which coincidentally celebrates a few anniversaries of its own on March 13. But then, after looking closer and seeing more clearly, to his amazement, William saw that his discovery was not a comet, but a planet. The seventh from the sun. He and Caroline were very excited, and immediately contacted the Royal society for verification. William lobbied for his new planet to be called, ‘Georgium Sidus’ in honor of King George III, but his idea was shot down, and instead, the planet was named after a Greek god known as ‘Father Sky,’ Uranus.

King George III heard what William wanted to do with his planet, and as a result, the King knighted William and appointed him his own personal court astronomer. William Herschel, son of Anna and Issak, had made good in England. Sir William, as his friends called him now, continued working with Caroline on many more amazing discoveries. She was even finding and naming comets, several deep space objects, and other gaseous moons on her own.

Seven years after he had discovered Uranus, 50-year-old William married a widow from England named Mary Pitts. The couple had a son, John, whom like dad became a star gazer too. Among his accomplishments was the finding and documenting of many moons around Saturn, optical work on telescopes and numerous other ventures. He was Williams only child, but the two spent many hours together looking at the heavens and asking, “What if?”

William is credited with mapping the area of the universe directly above England, being the first to use the term ‘asteroid’ and the first to create a New General Catalogue with over 7,820 nebula and star clusters, 4,630 of which were discovered by William and his son John. In 1800, William found the source of what is today called inferred radiation.

The symbol for Uranus has the letter ‘H’ in it, in William’s honor. From humble, 17th Century rock star beginnings to the keeper of the stars, before he died in 1822, William’s discovery of Uranus enabled him to really be the first man to ‘boldly go where no man has gone before.’

To all of the star trackers of the Kern River Valley, especially Nick and his three sons.