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One of the achievements by which Sir John Herschel is best known is his invention of a method by which the orbits of binary stars could be determined. It will be observed that when one star revolves around another in consequence of the law of gravitation, the orbit described must be an ellipse. This ellipse, however, generally speaking, appears to us more or less foreshortened, for it is easily seen that only under highly exceptional circumstances would the plane in which the stars move happen to be directly square to the line of view. It therefore follows that what we observe is not exactly the track of one star around the other; it is rather the projection of that track as seen on the surface of the sky. Now it is remarkable that this apparent path is still an ellipse. Herschel contrived a very ingenious and simple method by which he could discover from the observations the size and position of the ellipse in which the revolution actually takes place. He showed how, from the study of the apparent orbit of the star, and from certain measurements which could easily be effected upon it, the determination of the true ellipse in which the movement is performed could be arrived at. In other words, Herschel solved in a beautiful manner the problem of finding the true orbits of double stars. The importance of this work may be inferred from the fact that it has served as the basis on which scores of other investigators have studied the fascinating subject of the movement of binary stars.

to be hired away at increased pay, and their knowledge

The labours, both in the discovery and measurement of the double stars, and in the discussion of the observations with the object of finding the orbits of such stars as are in actual revolution, received due recognition in yet another gold medal awarded by the Royal Society. An address was delivered on the occasion by the Duke of Sussex (30th November, 1833), in the course of which, after stating that the medal had been conferred on Sir John Herschel, he remarks:--

to be hired away at increased pay, and their knowledge

"It has been said that distance of place confers the same privilege as distance of time, and I should gladly avail myself of the privilege which is thus afforded me by Sir John Herschel's separation from his country and friends, to express my admiration of his character in stronger terms than I should otherwise venture to use; for the language of panegyric, however sincerely it may flow from the heart, might be mistaken for that of flattery, if it could not thus claim somewhat of an historical character; but his great attainments in almost every department of human knowledge, his fine powers as a philosophical writer, his great services and his distinguished devotion to science, the high principles which have regulated his conduct in every relation of life, and, above all, his engaging modesty, which is the crown of all his other virtues, presenting such a model of an accomplished philosopher as can rarely be found beyond the regions of fiction, demand abler pens than mine to describe them in adequate terms, however much inclined I might feel to undertake the task."

to be hired away at increased pay, and their knowledge

The first few lines of the eulogium just quoted allude to Herschel's absence from England. This was not merely an episode of interest in the career of Herschel, it was the occasion of one of the greatest scientific expeditions in the whole history of astronomy.

Herschel had, as we have seen, undertaken a revision of his father's "sweeps" for new objects, in those skies which are visible from our latitudes in the northern hemisphere. He had well-nigh completed this task. Zone by zone the whole of the heavens which could be observed from Windsor had passed under his review. He had added hundreds to the list of nebulae discovered by his father. He had announced thousands of double stars. At last, however, the great survey was accomplished. The contents of the northern hemisphere, so far at least as they could be disclosed by his telescope of twenty feet focal length, had been revealed.


But Herschel felt that this mighty task had to be supplemented by another of almost equal proportions, before it could be said that the twenty-foot telescope had done its work. It was only the northern half of the celestial sphere which had been fully explored. The southern half was almost virgin territory, for no other astronomer was possessed of a telescope of such power as those which the Herschels had used. It is true, of course, that as a certain margin of the southern hemisphere was visible from these latitudes, it had been more or less scrutinized by observers in northern skies. And the glimpses which had thus been obtained of the celestial objects in the southern sky, were such as to make an eager astronomer long for a closer acquaintance with the celestial wonders of the south. The most glorious object in the sidereal heavens, the Great Nebula in Orion, lies indeed in that southern hemisphere to which the younger Herschel's attention now became directed. It fortunately happens, however, for votaries of astronomy all the world over, that Nature has kindly placed her most astounding object, the great Nebula in Orion, in such a favoured position, near the equator, that from a considerable range of latitudes, both north and south, the wonders of the Nebula can be explored. There are grounds for thinking that the southern heavens contain noteworthy objects which, on the whole, are nearer to the solar system than are the noteworthy objects in the northern skies. The nearest star whose distance is known, Alpha Centauri, lies in the southern hemisphere, and so also does the most splendid cluster of stars.

Influenced by the desire to examine these objects, Sir John Herschel determined to take his great telescope to a station in the southern hemisphere, and thus complete his survey of the sidereal heavens. The latitude of the Cape of Good Hope is such that a suitable site could be there found for his purpose. The purity of the skies in South Africa promised to provide for the astronomer those clear nights which his delicate task of surveying the nebulae would require.

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