Sir John Herschel

Biography of Sir John Herschel

Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Baronet (7 March 1792 – 11 May 1871) was an English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor, who in some years also did valuable botanical work. He was the son of Mary Baldwin and astronomer Sir William Herschel and the father of 12 children.

Herschel originated the use of the Julian day system in astronomy. He named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus. He made many contributions to the science of photography, and investigated colour blindness and the chemical power of ultraviolet rays.

Herschel was born in Slough, Berkshire, and studied shortly at Eton College and St John's College, Cambridge. He graduated as Senior wrangler in 1813. It was during his time as an undergraduate that he became friends with Charles Babbage and George Peacock. He took up astronomy in 1816, building a reflecting telescope with a mirror 18 inches (460 mm) in diameter and with a 20-foot (6.1 m) focal length. Between 1821 and 1823 he re-examined, with James South, the double stars catalogued by his father. For this work he was presented in 1826 with the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (which he won again in 1836), and with the Lalande Medal of the French Academy of Sciences in 1825, while in 1821 the Royal Society bestowed upon him the Copley Medal for his mathematical contributions to their Transactions. Herschel was made a Knight of the Royal Guelphic Order in 1831.

His A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy published early in 1831 as part of Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet cyclopædia set out methods of scientific investigation with an orderly relationship between observation and theorising. He described nature as being governed by laws which were difficult to discern or to state mathematically, and the highest aim of natural philosophy was understanding these laws through inductive reasoning, finding a single unifying explanation for a phenomenon. This became an authoritative statement with wide influence on science, particularly at the University of Cambridge where it inspired the student Charles Darwin with "a burning zeal" to contribute to this work.

He published a catalogue of his astronomical observations in 1864, as the General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters, a compilation of his own work and that of his father's, expanding on the senior Hershel's Catalogue of Nebulae. A further complementary volume was published posthumously, as the General Catalogue of 10,300 Multiple and Double Stars.

He also conceptualizes a practical contact lens design in 1823.

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