Variations on an Ascending Scale

herschel Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (1738 – 1822) was born in the Electorate of Hanover, part of the Holy Roman Empire, to Isaac Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. The family were Lutheran Christians, probably descended on his father’s side from converted Moravian Jews. His 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. Although his older brother Jakob had received his dismissal from the Guards, Wilhelm was accused of desertion (for which he was pardoned by George III). Wilhelm, nineteen years old, was a quick student of the English language. In addition to the oboe, he played the violin and harpsichord, and composed music. After terms as first violin and soloist in one orchestra, and first organist at a church, he was appointed director of the orchestra at Bath, with his sister often appearing as soprano soloist, and three of his brothers as musicians. \ His compositions include 24 symphonies and many concertos. Six of his symphonies have been recorded in the 21st century, by the London Mozart Players, Herschel’s music led him to an interest in mathematics and lenses. He started building his own reflecting telescopes and would spend up to 16 hours a day grinding and polishing the mirrors they used. He began to look at the planets and the stars in 1773, and on 1 March 1774 began an astronomical journal by noting his observations of Saturn’s rings and the Great Orion Nebula. From the back garden of his house in New King Street, Bath, Herschel began a systematic search among “every star in the Heavens.” His theoretical and observational work provided the foundation for modern binary star astronomy. In 1783 he gave Caroline a telescope, and she began to make astronomical discoveries in her own right, particularly of comets. She discovered or observed eight comets, eleven nebulae and, at her brother’s suggestion, updated and corrected Flamsteed’s work detailing the position of stars which was published as the British Catalogue of Stars. She was honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society for this work. From studying the proper motion of stars, Herschel was the first to realise that the solar system is moving through space, and determine the approximate direction of that movement. Studying the structure of the Milky Way he concluded that it was in the shape of a disk. He also coined the word “asteroid”, meaning star-like to describe the appearance of small moons. As part of his attempts to determine whether there were a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate, he collected records of the price of wheat, as direct meteorological measurements were not available. He theorised that the price of wheat would be linked to the harvest and hence to the weather over the year. In 1800, Herschel was testing filters for the sun so he could observe sun spots. He found infrared radiation in sunlight by passing the light through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum. This thermometer was meant to be a control to measure the ambient air temperature in the room, but after it showed a higher temperature at that end, he ultimately concluded that there must be an invisible form of light. Herschel also used a microscope to establish that coral was not a plant, as many believed at the time, since it lacked the cell walls characteristic of plants Despite his important scientific discoveries, Herschel was not averse to wild speculation. In particular, he believed every planet was inhabited.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efk3fm1B0zc&list=PLeYfIuyXgO3MabCWDAVHGiRSD8tDBOfTB
Chamber Symphony in F Major: II. Adagio e cantabile

 

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating. Where did you find him? Have you heard any of his music?

    • I know—These polymaths . . While some of us struggle to master the most fundamental human abilities!
      Somehow, in my moony interweb roamings–where I sometimes like to look at beautiful old musical scores among a million other things–I saw his name; and I knew I knew it from a natural history context so I looked into it: Nothing thoroughly satisfactory, but certainly enough to be intriguing.
      At first his work seems surprisingly like easy, lilting Baroque music—Though some of it oddly strikes me as sounding like Romantic ballet, and some as stiffish minuets of his own time or earlier. Somehow doesn’t seem as illuminating as what he revealed in the field of astronomy [enlightened]

      • Oh!—I take back that kind of dismissive tone: I’ve found a piece I think is beautiful & will post it.


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