My rating: 3 of 5 stars
John Herschel was the most famous scientist you never heard of. His name may sound familiar (especially if you’ve spent much time around me), but if so you’re likely thinking of his father, the astronomer famous for discovering the planet Uranus. Yet during his lifetime John Herschel, whose life and career spanned most of the nineteenth century, was Britain’s leading scientist (though the term itself is a bit anachronistic here) and a prime player in the international scientific community. I tell people he was the Stephen Hawking of the nineteenth century: an astronomer himself and the person people thought of when they envisioned the epitome of the scientific life. His generation considered him second to Newton in English science, so much so that he was buried next to the famous physicist in Westminster Abbey upon his death.
So why has no one heard of him today? There are lots of likely reasons. Though his career spanned decades, he was the last of the natural philosophers, the scientists who could still expect to have a mastery of all scientific fields. In astronomy, he was the first (and perhaps the only) to closely survey the entire northern and southern skies with a large optical telescope. But despite his influence he had no single large discovery (like his father’s planet), and his work was quickly overshadowed by the developments of spectroscopy and photography. In mathematics, he is largely the reason we use the Continental form of calculus instead of the Newtonian fluxions that held sway in England until the early 1800s, but the history of mathematical analysis doesn’t make great cover. He did important work in optics, chemistry, and photography as well, before they were considered separate fields. He coined the phrases snapshot, negative, and positive. His very omnicompetence may have helped efface his memory. He doesn’t have one specific theory or field of speciality to attach to him, like Maxwell or Darwin.
This breadth also contributes to another aspect of Herschel’s current anonymity: lack of a good biography. An adequate biography of Herschel would be a huge undertaking. The only attempt so far is a book-length sketch by a German librarian, which has been translated into English (Gunther Buttmann’s The Shadow of the Telescope). Herschel is starting to get more treatment though. He features prominently in Laura Snyder’s The Philosophical Breakfast Club and Richard Holmes’ Age of Wonder. In both of these however, Herschel himself is not the primary focus.
Several years ago Dr. Michael Crowe, a scholar on my dissertation committee, decided he would attempt a Herschel biography. What he realized very quickly though was that the amount of material that needed to be processed for such a project was immense. Correspondence to and from Herschel alone (not to mention his published works and his journals) amounted to more than 14,000 letters scattered in repositories, libraries, and archives all over the world. The first task would be to assemble and organize this correspondence, and the results (after a decade of work involving dozens of graduate students) was the massive Calendar of the Correspondence of Sir John Herschel.
This is not a book to be read straight through (unless you’re writing your dissertation on Herschel). It is truly massive, for one thing, weighing in at over 700 pages. And the content is not narrative but instead chronological summaries of all of Herschel’s correspondence. Every letter (known at the time) that he wrote or received has been read, dated, and summarized. And then indexed, which is perhaps the most useful thing of all. Because Herschel really was at the center of an immense network of scientists, and if you are interested in any aspect of what might loosely be termed Victorian science (and why wouldn’t you be, because this is the age of steam, electricity, exploration– science becoming the science we know today) you’re likely to find that Herschel corresponded with someone about it. Pretty much every big name (and several smaller ones) in the history of nineteenth-century science makes an appearance.
For a Herschel scholar, this is an absolutely essential resource. Besides a complete guide to his letters, Crowe also includes very large and very useful appendices listing all of Herschel’s published works as well as a bibliography of secondary works on Herschel up to the time of publishing (and while there is still no book-length treatment of Herschel’s life, the huge amount of papers and essays written about him shows his enduring influence on a wide range of fields). Though the book is currently out of print, the information entailed is available in an even more useful form, fully searchable and online, as a database hosted by the Adler Planetarium.
Venture forth: http://historydb.adlerplanetarium.org.