Carolyn Herschel Astronomer

The King of England, after the American Revolution, around the beginning of the 19th century, sponsored the construction of a “new” type of telescope. It altogether made sense as this new type of telescope was invented, it would seem, by the very amazing Sir Isaac Newton.

The telescope, famously, was the tool of choice for studying the heavens. Galileo in his studies of gravity, mathematics and finally astronomy learned of the “spyglass” and become adept at grinding optical lenses. Longer telescopes with thinner lenses evolved, and as long as 40 feet they were no longer just for pirates.

But it was Newton a century later that wondered why telescopes could only be improved a little, no matter how great the effort and expense. Newton studied light itself, and studied the current telescopes, documenting the prism effect, where white light is broken into the colors of the rainbow.

Telescope builders had fiddled with larger lenses, heavier lenses, thinner and lighter lenses, and noticed that the light at times produced this rainbow effect. As telescopes got bigger and longer, every type of trade off was attempted.

It was Newton that put to writing the nature of light, how it breaks into the prismic colors, and the notion that a concave mirror might be more efficient at collecting light, and not prone to the rainbow prism effect.

If you’ve ever played with a prism, you know it is a block of glass. And it is actually the transition of light from air to glass that bends the light a little bit, in fact each color or wavelength is bent at a slightly different angle. This is the same as when you see the weird angles of things in the swimming pool, especially the cleaning pole when half in and half out of the water. It’s called refraction.

Newton even built his own, tiny mirrored reflecting telescope, thus proving to himself that this was a more efficient and less distorted means of collecting the light from stars.

Along came a guy named Herschel. Herschel received grants for the King to create these mirrors, larger and larger, to build this new type of telescope. Meanwhile his sister, Carolyn took notes while he stared at the heavens through the eyepiece of the amazing mirrored telescope.

It was Carolyn, who when the opportunity arose, took over the seat of the astronomer. Now the scientist, observing and taking notes, she was able to operate much more in the fashion of an Aristotle or Newton, as to scientific observation and recording of findings.

So while Galileo might have been our first telescope wielding sort of astronomer, Carolyn Herschel published at the advent of a new more powerful instrument – the mirrored telescope, advancing astronomy in the next great leap.

Blueberry Household






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