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With Sir John Herschel's survey of the Southern Hemisphere it may be said that his career as an observing astronomer came to a close. He did not again engage in any systematic telescopic research. But it must not be inferred from this statement that he desisted from active astronomical work. It has been well observed that Sir John Herschel was perhaps the only astronomer who has studied with success, and advanced by original research, every department of the great science with which his name is associated. It was to some other branches of astronomy besides those concerned with looking through telescopes, that the rest of the astronomer's life was to be devoted.
To the general student Sir John Herschel is best known by the volume which he published under the title of "Outlines of Astronomy." This is, indeed, a masterly work, in which the characteristic difficulties of the subject are resolutely faced and expounded with as much simplicity as their nature will admit. As a literary effort this work is admirable, both on account of its picturesque language and the ennobling conceptions of the universe which it unfolds. The student who desires to become acquainted with those recondite departments of astronomy, in which the effects of the disturbing action of one planet upon the motions of another planet are considered, will turn to the chapters in Herschel's famous work on the subject. There he will find this complex matter elucidated, without resort to difficult mathematics. Edition after edition of this valuable work has appeared, and though the advances of modern astronomy have left it somewhat out of date in certain departments, yet the expositions it contains of the fundamental parts of the science still remain unrivalled.
Another great work which Sir John undertook after his return from the Cape, was a natural climax to those labours on which his father and he had been occupied for so many years. We have already explained how the work of both these observers had been mainly devoted to the study of the nebulae and the star clusters. The results of their discoveries had been announced to the world in numerous isolated memoirs. The disjointed nature of these publications made their use very inconvenient. But still it was necessary for those who desired to study the marvellous objects discovered by the Herschels, to have frequent recourse to the original works. To incorporate all the several observations of nebular into one great systematic catalogue, seemed, therefore, to be an indispensable condition of progress in this branch of knowledge. No one could have been so fitted for this task as Sir John Herschel. He, therefore, attacked and carried through the great undertaking. Thus at last a grand catalogue of nebulae and clusters was produced. Never before was there so majestic an inventory. If we remember that each of the nebulae is an object so vast, that the whole of the solar system would form an inconsiderable speck by comparison, what are we to think of a collection in which these objects are enumerated in thousands? In this great catalogue we find arranged in systematic order all the nebulae and all the clusters which had been revealed by the diligence of the Herschels, father and son, in the Northern Hemisphere, and of the son alone in the Southern Hemisphere. Nor should we omit to mention that the labours of other astronomers were likewise incorporated. It was unavoidable that the descriptions given to each of the objects should be very slight. Abbreviations are used, which indicate that a nebula is bright, or very bright, or extremely bright, or faint, or very faint, or extremely faint. Such phrases have certainly but a relative and technical meaning in such a catalogue. The nebulae entered as extremely bright by the experienced astronomer are only so described by way of contrast to the great majority of these delicate telescopic objects. Most of the nebulae, indeed, are so difficult to see, that they admit of but very slight description. It should be observed that Herschel's catalogue augmented the number of known nebulous objects to more than ten times that collected into any catalogue which had ever been compiled before the days of William Herschel's observing began. But the study of these objects still advances, and the great telescopes now in use could probably show at least twice as many of these objects as are contained in the list of Herschel, of which a new and enlarged edition has since been brought out by Dr. Dreyer.
One of the best illustrations of Sir John Herschel's literary powers is to be found in the address which he delivered at the Royal Astronomical Society, on the occasion of presenting a medal to Mr. Francis Baily, in recognition of his catalogue of stars. The passage I shall here cite places in its proper aspect the true merit of the laborious duty involved in such a task as that which Mr. Baily had carried through with such success:--
"If we ask to what end magnificent establishments are maintained by states and sovereigns, furnished with masterpieces of art, and placed under the direction of men of first-rate talent and high- minded enthusiasm, sought out for those qualities among the foremost in the ranks of science, if we demand QUI BONO? for what good a Bradley has toiled, or a Maskelyne or a Piazzi has worn out his venerable age in watching, the answer is--not to settle mere speculative points in the doctrine of the universe; not to cater for the pride of man by refined inquiries into the remoter mysteries of nature; not to trace the path of our system through space, or its history through past and future eternities. These, indeed, are noble ends and which I am far from any thought of depreciating; the mind swells in their contemplation, and attains in their pursuit an expansion and a hardihood which fit it for the boldest enterprise. But the direct practical utility of such labours is fully worthy of their speculative grandeur. The stars are the landmarks of the universe; and, amidst the endless and complicated fluctuations of our system, seem placed by its Creator as guides and records, not merely to elevate our minds by the contemplation of what is vast, but to teach us to direct our actions by reference to what is immutable in His works. It is, indeed, hardly possible to over-appreciate their value in this point of view. Every well-determined star, from the moment its place is registered, becomes to the astronomer, the geographer, the navigator, the surveyor, a point of departure which can never deceive or fail him, the same for ever and in all places, of a delicacy so extreme as to be a test for every instrument yet invented by man, yet equally adapted for the most ordinary purposes; as available for regulating a town clock as for conducting a navy to the Indies; as effective for mapping down the intricacies of a petty barony as for adjusting the boundaries of Transatlantic empires. When once its place has been thoroughly ascertained and carefully recorded, the brazen circle with which that useful work was done may moulder, the marble pillar may totter on its base, and the astronomer himself survive only in the gratitude of posterity; but the record remains, and transfuses all its own exactness into every determination which takes it for a groundwork, giving to inferior instruments--nay, even to temporary contrivances, and to the observations of a few weeks or days--all the precision attained originally at the cost of so much time, labour, and expense."
Sir John Herschel wrote many other works besides those we have mentioned. His "Treatise on Meteorology" is, indeed, a standard work on this subject, and numerous articles from the same pen on miscellaneous subjects, which have been collected and reprinted, seemed as a relaxation from his severe scientific studies. Like certain other great mathematicians Herschel was also a poet, and he published a translation of the Iliad into blank verse.
In his later years Sir John Herschel lived a retired life. For a brief period he had, indeed, been induced to accept the office of Master of the Mint. It was, however, evident that the routine of such an occupation was not in accordance with his tastes, and he gladly resigned it, to return to the seclusion of his study in his beautiful home at Collingwood, in Kent.
His health having gradually failed, he died on the 11th May, 1871, in the seventy-ninth year of his age.
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