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Famous Astronomers: William Herschel & More

What contributions has William Herschel delivered to the world of astronomy? Who is Urbain Le Verrier and what does he have to do with Neptune? What well-known hypothesis is Fred Whipple responsible for? These questions and more are discussed in this installment of famous astronomers.

William Herschel (1738-1822): This German-born British astronomer and composer gained his claim to fame as becoming the person to discover Uranus. Among other things, he is also responsible for identifying the two brightest moons of the planet (Oberon and Titania); discovered infrared radiation; made note of the ice caps on Mars; uncovered a host of asteroids and binary stars; as well as cataloged 2,500 deep sky objects.

It is the discovery of Uranus that is most prominent in the minds of astronomers, as Herschel followed his love of music onto the path of mathematics, which then translated into an interest in astronomy. He started out by constructing telescopes and making friends within various circles, such as Nevil Maskelyne (the fifth English Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811). Some of Herschel’s first astronomical efforts came when he started observing the Moon, followed by taking measurement of the heights that lunar mountains reached. He also established a catalog consisting of double stars.

However, the turning point in Herschel’s life would take place on March 13th, 1781, while residing in Bath (which was later transformed into the Herschel Museum of Astronomy). This is when and where he would catch the first sight of Uranus , his claim to fame. It was this moment that his interest in astronomy would become a full-time endeavor. Uranus was first named Georgium Sidus (which in Latin , translates into “George’s Star”). This would also place him in a favorable light with King George III, who he named it after. This name did not last very long, as in France , a reference to a British king was not a good thing. In time, the planet was referred to as ‘Herschel’ until universal circles adopted the name ‘Uranus.’

In the same year Herschel won the Copley Medal (a scientific honor given for high achievement in any field of science , the highest and oldest award granted by the Royal Society of London) and was elected to the position of a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1782, he earned the distinction of becoming the “The King’s Astronomer.” In his later years, he continued to make telescopes (as a profession) and would sell them to many different astronomers of his time.

Fred Whipple (1906 , 2004): Have you ever heard of the Dirty Snowball theory? It was Whipple who gained notoriety for writing a respected paper that was published in the Astrophysical Journal from 1950 to 1955. He proposed a hypothesis that involved comet composition as an “icy conglomerate.” The basic features were later confirmed, yet the exact amount or importance of the ices within a comet has not been settled upon. Whipple also discovered one asteroid, which was named 1252 Celestia on February 18th, 1933.

Urbain Le Verrier (1811 , 1877): Le Verrier is best known as the man who accurately predicted the positioning of Neptune, which eventually led to its discovery. This French mathematician held specialized skills in “celestial mechanics” and would earn a collection of honors, including becoming one of the 72 names engraved on the Eiffel Tower. As far as distinctions go , he earned the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in both 1868 and 1876. When taking a look at the crater on the Moon and Mars, you will see that some are named after him, as well as a ring on Neptune and the asteroid known as 1997 Leverrier.