The Discovery of Uranus (Astronomy)

By | December 8, 2019


Six planets were known to the ancients: Mercury,
Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It wasn’t until 1781, during the Age of Enlightenment,
the age of the “gentleman scientist,” that the seventh planet was discovered. Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was a German musician
who fled French-occupied Hanover during the Seven Years’ War. He made a new life in
England, settling in Bath where he was appointed a church organist, a respected position. He
changed his name to William, a proper English name. In 1773, at the age of 35, Herschel took up
the gentlemanly pursuit of science. He acquired a copy of James Ferguson’s book “Astronomy,”
and Robert Smith’s “Opticks.” Eager to apply what he had learned from these texts,
Herschel began constructing special reflecting mirrors and soon had made one of the most
powerful telescopes of its day. With it, he was able to view the heavens with great clarity.
Herschel, with the assistance of his sister Caroline, undertook a survey of the night
sky, paying special attention to double stars. On March 13, 1781, Herschel took a closer
look at what was assumed to be a faint star. It had been previously catalogued by other
astronomers as 34 Tauri, the 34th star of Taurus, the Bull. Through his powerful telescope,
however, Herschel observed it with fresh eyes. In his notes he wrote “In the quartile near
Zeta Tauri … either [a] nebulous star or perhaps a comet.” Four days later, on March
17, 1781, he wrote “I looked for the Comet or Nebulous Star and found that it is a Comet,
for it has changed its place. ” Herschel had discovered a new heavenly body
that moved. It turned out not to be a comet, but a PLANET, the first to be discovered since
prehistoric times. It was twice as far away from the sun as Saturn. Overnight, Herschel
had doubled the size of the known solar system. Herschel wanted to name his find “Georgium
Sidus”, Latin for “Georgian star” after King George III of England. Cooler heads prevailed,
and the name Uranus was settled upon, which followed the tradition of naming planets after
Greek and Roman Gods. Uranus was the Greek God of the Sky. As news of his discovery spread, Herschel
became famous overnight, and he was appointed by George III as the Royal Astronomer. He
was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was awarded grants to continue his work
and build more telescopes. Herschel went on to discover two of the moons
orbiting Uranus. His son John named them Oberon and Titania after the King and Queen of the
fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of the moons of Uranus
discovered later were also named after Shakespearean characters (Juliet, Miranda, etc.) Herschel was knighted in 1816 for his invaluable
contributions to science. His discovery of Uranus shattered the notion that the ancients
had discovered everything in the solar system. Herschel’s work ushered in a new era of
astronomy – one in which momentous discoveries were still possible. The universe is a pretty big place, and so
is that subscribe button. I’m not going to tell you to click it, because I’m certain you’ll do the right thing…… The right thing is to click the button.

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