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"A few traits of John Herschel's boyhood, mentioned by himself in his maturer life, have been treasured up by those who were dear to him, and the record of some of them may satisfy a curiosity as pardonable as inevitable, which craves to learn through what early steps great men or great nations become illustrious. His home was singular, and singularly calculated to nurture into greatness any child born as John Herschel was with natural gifts, capable of wide development. At the head of the house there was the aged, observant, reticent philosopher, and rarely far away his devoted sister, Caroline Herschel, whose labours and whose fame are still cognisable as a beneficent satellite to the brighter light of her illustrious brother. It was in the companionship of these remarkable persons, and under the shadow of his father's wonderful telescope, that John Herschel passed his boyish years. He saw them, in silent but ceaseless industry, busied about things which had no apparent concern with the world outside the walls of that well-known house, but which, at a later period of his life, he, with an unrivalled eloquence, taught his countrymen to appreciate as foremost among those living influences which but satisfy and elevate the noblest instincts of our nature. What sort of intercourse passed between the father and the boy may be gathered from an incident or two which he narrated as having impressed themselves permanently on the memory of his youth. He once asked his father what he thought was the oldest of all things. The father replied, after the Socratic method, by putting another question: 'And what do you yourself suppose is the oldest of all things?' The boy was not successful in his answers, thereon the old astronomer took up a small stone from the garden walk: 'There, my child, there is the oldest of all the things that I certainly know.' On another occasion his father is said to have asked the boy, 'What sort of things, do you think, are most alike?' The delicate, blue-eyed boy, after a short pause, replied, 'The leaves of the same tree are most like each other.' 'Gather, then, a handful of leaves of that tree,' rejoined the philosopher, 'and choose two that are alike.' The boy failed; but he hid the lesson in his heart, and his thoughts were revealed after many days. These incidents may be trifles; nor should we record them here had not John Herschel himself, though singularly reticent about his personal emotions, recorded them as having made a strong impression on his mind. Beyond all doubt we can trace therein, first, that grasp and grouping of many things in one, implied in the stone as the oldest of things; and, secondly, that fine and subtle discrimination of each thing out of many like things as forming the main features which characterized the habit of our venerated friend's philosophy."
John Herschel entered St. John's College, Cambridge, when he was seventeen years of age. His university career abundantly fulfilled his father's eager desire, that his only son should develop a capacity for the pursuit of science. After obtaining many lesser distinctions, he finally came out as Senior Wrangler in 1813. It was, indeed, a notable year in the mathematical annals of the University. Second on that list, in which Herschel's name was first, appeared that of the illustrious Peacock, afterwards Dean of Ely, who remained throughout life one of Herschel's most intimate friends.
Almost immediately after taking his degree, Herschel gave evidence of possessing a special aptitude for original scientific investigation. He sent to the Royal Society a mathematical paper which was published in the PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS. Doubtless the splendour that attached to the name he bore assisted him in procuring early recognition of his own great powers. Certain it is that he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at the unprecedentedly early age of twenty-one. Even after this remarkable encouragement to adopt a scientific career as the business of his life, it does not seem that John Herschel at first contemplated devoting himself exclusively to science. He commenced to prepare for the profession of the Law by entering as a student at the Middle Temple, and reading with a practising barrister.
But a lawyer John Herschel was not destined to become. Circumstances brought him into association with some leading scientific men. He presently discovered that his inclinations tended more and more in the direction of purely scientific pursuits. Thus it came to pass that the original intention as to the calling which he should follow was gradually abandoned. Fortunately for science Herschel found its pursuit so attractive that he was led, as his father had been before him, to give up his whole life to the advancement of knowledge. Nor was it unnatural that a Senior Wrangler, who had once tasted the delights of mathematical research, should have been tempted to devote much time to this fascinating pursuit. By the time John Herschel was twenty-nine he had published so much mathematical work, and his researches were considered to possess so much merit, that the Royal Society awarded him the Copley Medal, which was the highest distinction it was capable of conferring.
At the death of his father in 1822, John Herschel, with his tastes already formed for a scientific career, found himself in the possession of ample means. To him also passed all his father's great telescopes and apparatus. These material aids, together with a dutiful sense of filial obligation, decided him to make practical astronomy the main work of his life. He decided to continue to its completion that great survey of the heavens which had already been inaugurated, and, indeed, to a large extent accomplished, by his father.
The first systematic piece of practical astronomical work which John Herschel undertook was connected with the measurement of what are known as "Double Stars." It should be observed, that there are in the heavens a number of instances in which two stars are seen in very close association. In the case of those objects to which the expression "Double Stars" is generally applied, the two luminous points are so close together that even though they might each be quite bright enough to be visible to the unaided eye, yet their proximity is such that they cannot be distinguished as two separate objects without optical aid. The two stars seem fused together into one. In the telescope, however, the bodies may be discerned separately, though they are frequently so close together that it taxes the utmost power of the instrument to indicate the division between them.
The appearance presented by a double star might arise from the circumstance that the two stars, though really separated from each other by prodigious distances, happened to lie nearly in the same line of vision, as seen from our point of view. No doubt, many of the so-called double stars could be accounted for on this supposition. Indeed, in the early days when but few double stars were known, and when telescopes were not powerful enough to exhibit the numerous close doubles which have since been brought to light, there seems to have been a tendency to regard all double stars as merely such perspective effects. It was not at first suggested that there could be any physical connection between the components of each pair. The appearance presented was regarded as merely due to the circumstance that the line joining the two bodies happened to pass near the earth.
In the early part of his career, Sir William Herschel seems to have entertained the view then generally held by other astronomers with regard to the nature of these stellar pairs. The great observer thought that the double stars could therefore be made to afford a means of solving that problem in which so many of the observers of the skies had been engaged, namely, the determination of the distances of the stars from the earth. Herschel saw that the displacement of the earth in its annual movement round the sun would produce an apparent shift in the place of the nearer of the two stars relatively to the other, supposed to be much more remote. If this shift could be measured, then the distance of the nearer of the stars could be estimated with some degree of precision.
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