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Herschel, John


(b. Slough, Berkshire, Great Britain, 7 March 1792; d. Hawkhurst, Kent, United Kingdom, 11 May 1871)

astronomy, meteorology, geomagnetism, scientific method. For the original article on Herschel see DSB, vol. 6.

When Charles Darwin began his introduction to the On the Origin of Species (1859) by describing the topic as “that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers,” he was alluding to a great influence on his work: John Herschel. Herschel’s reputation derived from his achievements in diverse areas of natural philosophy and from his insight into scientific methodology, most explicitly addressed in his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy(1830), a volume that impacted Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Herschel’s close friend William Whewell, and many other significant contemporaries. Herschel played important roles in major scientific organizations—including the Royal Society, the Astronomical Society (later the Royal Astronomical Society), and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS)—became a member of dozens of others throughout Europe, and served as an advisor to numerous national committees and large-scale, data-gathering projects, such as the mapping of Earth’s magnetic field and the collecting of meteorological data. By drawing on his own scientific reputation and on the renown of his surname, Herschel was able to cross social classes, political lines, and philosophical divisions, providing a point of contact and enabling cooperation between diverse groups and interests.

A Gentleman of Science . Herschel grew up in an unusual household that was regularly visited by local and foreign dignitaries drawn to his father William’s accomplishments and to the world’s largest telescope. John’s inheritance of twenty-five thousand pounds (plus land and properties) enabled him to live the life of a leisured gentleman able to explore whatever natural phenomena piqued his wide interests. The absence of a signature discovery is an important factor in his lasting reputation not reflecting the renown he enjoyed in his lifetime. A complete explanation of that discrepancy, perhaps part of a still much-needed biography, would need to address the manner in which Herschel’s life and work manifest the changing contexts and methods of natural philosophy in mid-nineteenth-century England. These broad changes—sometimes summarized as the movement from gentlemen natural philosophers (typically working alone) to professional, specialized scientists (often working collaboratively)—led to the very origins of the word scientist, coined by Whewell at the 1833 meeting of the BAAS, with Herschel (among others) in mind. Indeed, it is instructive to note that Herschel was described in the late twentieth century as “an occupied astronomer” or an occupied gentleman (by science historian Allan Chapman) and as “Britain’s first modern physical scientist” (by Herschel scholar and astronomy historian Michael Crowe).

In many ways, Herschel remained a gentleman of science. He relied on his own financial resources to fund investigations of his own choosing, never held a paid philosophical position, and refused monetary assistance even with the huge expenses related to the years spent in South Africa from 1883 to 1888 observing the southern skies, the most carefully studied years of his life. Elizabeth Green Musselman has clearly described Herschel’s understanding of his own astronomical work in the context of empire and has demonstrated the mutual interaction of science and empire. This interpretation is complemented by Steven Ruskin’s analysis of how Herschel’s South African voyage was popularly linked to British imperial ambitions, a linkage reinforced by Herschel’s elevation to the baronetcy at the coronation of Queen Victoria on 28 June 1838. Herschel was the only man of science to receive this honor on that occasion, which took place immediately upon his return from the Cape of Good Hope and a decade before his astronomical results actually appeared. Despite the analytical skills that led to numerous publications of great depth on narrow topics, Herschel maintained broad interests, resisting the ever-growing tendency toward specialization.

Nonetheless, Herschel was acutely aware of the limitations of gentleman scholarship and of the Royal Society. He therefore played an active role in the founding of the Astronomical Society in 1820 and in its activities for many years; his efforts to reform the Royal Society itself

culminated in his barely failed attempt to attain its presidency in 1830. In addition to his active participation in the BAAS, his writings indicate his awareness, acceptance, and participation in the increasingly democratic and popular aspects of science: His Treatise on Astronomy(first edition, 1833) and its transformation into Outlines of Astronomy (first edition, 1849) each went through numerous editions and translations, and his Essays from the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews (1857) and Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1867) reached wide audiences.

Methodology . In his methodology, Herschel also bridged scientific styles. He participated in numerous Baconian data-collecting projects: with James South, he surveyed double stars; with assistants, he extended his father’s catalog of double stars, clusters, and nebulae to the southern skies, and expended enormous labor in reducing his data, a task he carried out by himself over a decade. He nonetheless recognized that projects for obtaining magnetic, meteorological, and other scientific data involved larger-scale international collaborations. Herschel also emphasized the importance of rigorous mathematical analysis, and as a result of his investigations into crystallography and the nature of light, realized the importance of hypothetical reasoning and the development of theories for investigating and understanding natural phenomena. This notion appears regularly throughout the Preliminary Discourse, and most evocatively in a letter to Whewell: “I remember it was a saying often in my Father’s mouth ‘Hypotheses fingo’ in reference to Newton’s ‘Hypotheses non fingo,’ [‘I frame no hypotheses’] and certainly it is this facility of framing hypotheses if accompanied with an equal facility of abandoning them which is the happiest structure of mind for theoretical speculation” (John Herschel to William Whewill, 20 August 1837).

Diverging from Eminent Scientists . Eventually, Herschel’s broad-ranging interests and the decline of his formidable analytical skills did not enable him to keep pace with the increased specialization of natural philosophy. Darwin, who stopped in to visit Herschel at the Cape while on his Beagle voyage, expressed great disappointment when, after publication of On the Origin of Species, Herschel declared natural selection to be “the law of higgledy piggledy.” In his rejection of Darwin’s work, his dismissal of the principle of the conservation of energy, and his continued defense of Boscovichian atomism, Herschel’s insights and experience led him in directions that diverged from those taken by other leading scientific practitioners. Still, his extensive extant personal correspondence reveals Herschel’s activity and importance as a prominent node in the scientific communications network over several decades.


A comprehensive bibliography of Herschel’s published works is in Michael J. Crowe, ed., A Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.) This volume also lists numerous archives housing Herschel’s unpublished documents; noteworthy archives include the private collection of John Herschel-Shorland; the Royal Astronomical Society Herschel Archive, London, U.K.; Archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, U.K.; Herschel Papers, Royal Society, London, U.K.; St. John’s College, Cambridge University, Cambridge, U.K.; Trinity College, Cambridge University, Cambridge, U.K.; Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Bolt, Marvin. “John Herschel’s Natural Philosophy: On the Knowing of Nature and the Nature of Knowing in Early-Nineteenth-Century Britain.” PhD. diss, University of Notre Dame, 1998.

Carter, Christopher. “Imperialism and Empiricism: Science and State in the Age of Empire.” PhD diss., Duke University, 2004. A study of Herschel’s roles in geomagnetic and meteorological data-gathering projects and of issues relating to imperial contexts.

Chapman, Allan. “An Occupation for an Independent Gentleman: Astronomy in the Life of John Herschel.” Vistas in Astronomy 36 (1993): 71–116.

Crowe, Michael J. “John Herschel: Britain’s First Modern Physical Scientist.” In John Herschel, 1792–1992: Bicentennial Symposium, edited by Brian Warner. Royal Society of South Africa, 1994.

———., ed. A Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. By far the most important addition to Herschel scholarship in recent years, this massive work provides summaries of nearly fifteen thousand surviving letters and exhaustive bibliographies of Herschel’s own publications and of secondary works published up to 1998. It reveals details of Herschel’s private life as well as occasional and regular communications between Herschel and others.

———. “Herschel, Sir John Frederick William, First Baronet (1792–1871).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 26, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 825–831. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Evans, David. “Herschel, John Frederick William.” In Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, edited by Thomas Hockey. New York: Springer, 2006.

Musselman, Elizabeth Green. “Swords into Ploughshares: John Herschel’s Progressive View of Astronomical and Imperial Governance.” British Journal for the History of Science 31 (1998): 419–436.

Ross, Sydney, ed. Catalogue of the Herschel Library: Being a Catalogue of the Books Owned by Sir William Herschel, Kt. and by His Son Sir John F. W. Herschel, Bart. Troy, NY: privately printed, 2001.

Ruskin, Steven. John Herschel’s Cape Voyage: Private Science, Public Imagination, and the Ambitions of Empire. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.

Marvin Bolt

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Herschel, John

Herschel, John (1792–1871). The most eminent physicist of early Victorian Britain. His father William was a famous astronomer, and John went to Cambridge where with Charles Babbage he reformed the mathematics course. After toying with law, he turned to physics, working on optics as the new wave theory was coming in, and to astronomy. In 1830, he just failed to be elected president of the Royal Society, and published his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, an extremely influential account of scientific method. In 1833 he sailed to the Cape to observe the southern stars (results published 1847). He became a great pundit, widely consulted and involved in numerous scientific projects: he is remembered as a pioneer in photography, and also in geophysics; for editing the admiralty Manual of Scientific Enquiry (1850); and for his essays and poems.

David Knight

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