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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.
As has not unfrequently happened in the history of science, an effect was perceived of a very different nature from that which had been anticipated. If the relative places of the two stars had been apparently deranged merely in consequence of the motion of the earth, then the phenomenon would be an annual one. After the lapse of a year the two stars would have regained their original relative positions. This was the effect for which William Herschel was looking. In certain of the so called double stars, he, no doubt, did find a movement. He detected the remarkable fact that both the apparent distance and the relative positions of the two bodies were changing. But what was his surprise to observe that these alterations were not of an annually periodic character. It became evident then that in some cases one of the component stars was actually revolving around the other, in an orbit which required many years for its completion. Here was indeed a remarkable discovery. It was clearly impossible to suppose that movements of this kind could be mere apparent displacements, arising from the annual shift in our point of view, in consequence of the revolution of the earth. Herschel's discovery established the interesting fact that, in certain of these double stars, or binary stars, as these particular objects are more expressively designated, there is an actual orbital revolution of a character similar to that which the earth performs around the sun. Thus it was demonstrated that in these particular double stars the nearness of the two components was not merely apparent. The objects must actually lie close together at a distance which is small in comparison with the distance at which either of them is separated from the earth. The fact that the heavens contain pairs of twin suns in mutual revolution was thus brought to light.
In consequence of this beautiful discovery, the attention of astronomers was directed to the subject of double stars with a degree of interest which these objects had never before excited. It was therefore not unnatural that John Herschel should have been attracted to this branch of astronomical work. Admiration for his father's discovery alone might have suggested that the son should strive to develop this territory newly opened up to research. But it also happened that the mathematical talents of the younger Herschel inclined his inquiries in the same direction. He saw clearly that, when sufficient observations of any particular binary star had been accumulated, it would then be within the power of the mathematician to elicit from those observations the shape and the position in space of the path which each of the revolving stars described around the other. Indeed, in some cases he would be able to perform the astonishing feat of determining from his calculations the weight of these distant suns, and thus be enabled to compare them with the mass of our own sun.
[PLATE: NEBULA IN SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE, drawn by Sir John Herschel.]
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