Prof. Woody Sullivan Lecture, "William Herschel (1738-1822): Astronomy as Natural History of the Heavens"

Date and Time: 

April 7, 2014 - 4:30pm to 5:30pm

Event Location: 

Smith 306

Members of the department are invited to a lecture by Professor of Astronomy Woody Sullivan, one of the founders of the department's history and science concentration in 1987.  After teaching History 313 regularly since then as an adjunct in our department, Woody has become a professor emeritus, and he will introduce us to his next big project: a biography of the astronomer William Herschel.

Prof. Sullivan's Abstract: William Herschel (1738-1822) is generally regarded as one of the greatest astronomers of all time and yet he has never received a biography that incorporated the many significant aspects of his life outside of astronomy. In astronomy he discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, the first planet not visible to the naked eye. He also made fundamental contributions to measuring our place in the Milky Way galaxy, to understanding binary stars that orbit each other in space, and to cataloging thousands of nebulae and clusters of stars. But Herschel was a fulltime and successful professional musician and composer until his early 40s (I will play excerpts from his music), when he switched over completely to astronomy. Herschel also was a strong believer that the the cosmos was full of planetary systems populated with intelligent beings. Herschel was furthermore a technologist of the first rank, designing ever larger telescopes (his largest was 40 feet long). Finally, Herschel was a natural historian, applying the principles of contemporary geologists like the
Scot James Hutton and the medical doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) to propose that the stars and nebulae were not fixed, but continually "maturing", changing under the influence of gravity, the oldest being of a very great age. In this talk I will suggest tentative approaches to incorporating all of these aspects into a single biography, but I am still very much in "early days" for this daunting project.