As we celebrate the achievement of a space craft landing on a comet, it is appropriate to remember a great astronomer who was a Messianic Jew.
Sir Frederick William Herschel, KH, FRS (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel; 15 November 1738 – 25 August 1822) was a German-born British astronomer, composer, and brother of Caroline Herschel, herself a distinguished musician and astronomer.
Born in the Electorate of Hanover, Herschel followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, before migrating to Great Britain at the age of nineteen.
Herschel’s father was an oboist in the Hanover Military Band. In 1755 the Hanoverian Guards regiment, in whose band Wilhelm and his brother Jakob were engaged as oboists, was ordered to England. At the time the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under King George II. As the threat of war with France loomed, the Hanoverian Guards were recalled from England to defend Hanover. After they were defeated at the Battle of Hastenbeck, Herschel’s father Isaak sent his two sons to seek refuge in England in late 1757. Although his older brother Jakob had received his dismissal from the Hanoverian Guards, Wilhelm was accused of desertion (for which he was pardoned by George III in 1782). Wilhelm, nineteen years old at this time, was a quick student of the English language. In England he went by the English rendition of his name, Frederick William Herschel.
In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and harpsichord and later the organ. He composed numerous musical works, including 24 symphonies and many concertos, as well as some church music. Six of his symphonies were recorded in April 2002 by the London Mozart Players, conducted by Matthias Bamert (Chandos 10048).
Herschel moved to Sunderland in 1761 when Charles Avison immediately engaged him as first violin and soloist for his Newcastle orchestra, where he played for one season. In ‘Sunderland in the County of Durh: apprill [sic] 20th 1761’ he wrote his symphony No. 8 in c minor. He was head of the Durham Militia band 1760–61 and visited the home of Sir Ralph Milbanke at Halnaby Hall in 1760, where he wrote two symphonies, as well as giving performances himself.
After Newcastle he moved to Leeds and Halifax where he was the first organist at St John the Baptist church (now Halifax Minster). He became organist of the Octagon Chapel, Bath, a fashionable chapel in a well-known spa, in which city he was also Director of Public Concerts. He was appointed as the organist in 1766 and gave his introductory concert on 1 January 1767.
As the organ was still incomplete he showed off his versatility by performing his own compositions including a violin concerto, an oboe concerto and a harpsichord sonata. The organ was completed in October 1767. His sister Caroline came to England in 1772 and lived with him there in New King Street, Bath. The house they shared is now the location of the William Herschel Museum. His brothers Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob (1734–1792) also appeared as musicians of Bath. In 1780, Herschel was appointed director of the Bath orchestra, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist.
Herschel became interested in astronomy in 1773, and after constructing his first large telescope in 1774, he spent nine years carrying out thorough sky surveys, where his purpose was the investigation of double stars. The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that the nebulae in the Messier catalogue were clusters of stars: catalogues of nebulae were published in 1802 (2,500 objects) and 1820 (5,000 objects).
In the course of an observation on 13 March 1781 he realized that one celestial body he had observed was not a star, but a planet, Uranus. This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight. As a result of this discovery George III appointed him ‘Court Astronomer’. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and grants were provided for the construction of new telescopes.
Herschel pioneered the use of astronomical spectrophotometry as a diagnostic tool, using prisms and temperature measuring equipment to measure the wavelength distribution of stellar spectra. Other work included an improved determination of the rotation period of Mars, the discovery that the Martian polar caps vary seasonally, the discovery of Titania and Oberon (moons of Uranus) and Enceladus and Mimas (moons of Saturn). In addition, he was the first person to discover the existence of infrared radiation. Herschel was knighted in 1816. He died in August 1822, and his work was continued by his only son, John Herschel.
“Herschel, Sir William, English astronomer, born at Hanover, November 15, 1738, died at Slough, August 22, 1822. His father, Abraham, brought him up as a musician, and in that capacity he went to England in 1755, in the band of the Hanoverian guards, and for a considerable time earned his living as a teacher of music, obtaining a position as organist in Bath, in 1760. This seems to show, in all probability, that either he was baptized during this interval of five years in England, or that he was baptized in Germany. For as a professing Jew he would scarcely have ventured at that time to apply for the position of an organist, neither would his services have been accepted. He is known as the founder of Sidereal Science. His views on the position of the Solar System, in relation to the Milky Way, still form the central factor in the modern theory as to the constitution of the universe. He is also known as the discoverer of the infra-red solar rays.”
As to Herschel’s faith, and even his Jewish identity and background, there is some uncertainty.
Though sources I’ve checked agree William Herschel was sincerely religious, none are detailed enough to indicate if he was really a “born-again” Christian. His family attended church regularly, but musician that he was, William could have been more performer than believer. Was he just a Sunday Christian, and secular astronomer the rest of the week? N. S. Dodge wrote in 1871 of the family’s sincere Christian faith, but Dan Graves (Scientists of Faith, p. 115) called him “a nominal Christian, at best.” Herschel had some strange ideas: he believed the other planets, the moon, and even the sun were inhabited (but so did many others in his day). Some of his writings seem to assume long ages and the insignificance of man in a universe populated not only by myriads of stars but perhaps other civilizations. He speaks of the Author and Creator of the heavens, but not of the Scriptures or Jesus Christ. Herschel dined with Hume and LaPlace, the skeptics, but as a dignitary in frequent touch with the intellectuals of the day and polite society, this cannot be taken to assume agreement with them. In some of his diary entries, it appears they conversed about music or the fine cuisine rather than philosophy or theology. In The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel published by the Royal Society in 1912, he relates an incident where the First Consul and La Place were having an argument over naturalistic philosophy. Herschel writes in his diary,
The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the First Consul’s, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens) ‘and who is the author of all this.’ M. de La Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system; this the First Consul rather opposed. Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to ‘Nature and Nature’s God.’
Compromise? Theistic evolution? Wishy-washy belief in God, or signs of a true believer? Hard to say, because he changes the subject in his diary after leaving us hanging with “much may be said.”
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the life and work of William Herschel – for his creative mind, musical abilities, and the beauty of creation he discovered through his musical compositions and his astronomical observations. All creation sings your praise, O Lord, and to you alone we give the glory. In our Messiah’s name, Amen