Today in Science History – March 7 – John Herschel

John Herschel
John Herschel (1792 – 1871)

March 7 is the English astronomer, Sir John Frederick William Herschel’s birthday. He was one of the better known English scientists of his time and made several contributions to astronomy. He was the son of the famous astronomer Frederick William Herschel. His first work was checking and expanding his father’s work and cataloging double stars. They published their General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters containing 5,079 entries.

He named the seven known moons of Saturn, naming them after Titans from Roman mythology: Titan, Dione, Rhea, Iapetus, Mimas, Enceladus, and Hyperion. He also named four of the Moons of Uranus after characters by William Shakespeare. The first two were discovered by his father: Titania and Oberon. The second two, Ariel and Umbriel, were discovered by William Lassell. This tradition continued in the naming of other moons of Uranus as they were discovered.

He gained fame of his own after moving to South Africa and cataloged nearly 70,000 stars. He also cataloged double stars and nebulae and described details of the Magellanic Cloud galaxies. He also wrote a general astronomy book Outlines of Astronomy geared towards the educated enthusiast. 

Another achievement Herschel was credited with discovering life on the Moon. Starting on August 25, 1835, six articles were published by the New York Sun newspaper describing Herschel’s observation of Moon creatures such as unicorns, bipedal beavers, and bat-winged humanoids. The Great Moon Hoax was written by Richard A. Locke to increase circulation for the New York Sun. It wasn’t exposed as a hoax for two weeks and no retraction was ever made. Herschel was initially amused by the stories but grew tired of trying to explain to people he had nothing to do with it or denying the observations to people who believed the hoax.

Great Moon Hoax Lithograph
Lithograph that accompanied the fourth of six articles describing William Herschel’s discovery of life on the moon. New York Sun, 1835
John Herschel 1867
John Herschel in 1867.

After he returned to England, he received a baronet and looked into serving in a public office. He was made Master of the Mint in 1850, but the work depressed him and his health deteriorated. He resigned this position in 1856 and returned to working on his catalog.

Judging by the photograph of Herschel in 1867, the work was extremely hard on him.

Notable Science History Events for March 7

1997 – Edward Mills Purcell died.

Edward Mills Purcell (1912 – 1997)
Edward Mills Purcell (1912 – 1997)
Nobel Foundation

Purcell was an American physicist who shares the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics with Felix Bloch for their independent discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

Purcell and Harold Ewen were the first to observe the 21-centimeter line of hydrogen in space which revealed the spiral structure of the Milky Way galaxy.

1954 – James Bryan Herrick died.

Herrick was an American physician that discovered the blood disease sickle-cell anemia. One of his patients came in with pain in his back and extremities with a slight fever and shortness of breath. After taking a blood sample he discovered several long sickle-shaped red blood cells.

1954 – Otto Paul Hermann Diels died.

Otto Paul Hermann Diels
Otto Paul Hermann Diels (1876 – 1954)

Diels was a German chemist who shares the 1950 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Kurt Alder for their development of diene synthesis, otherwise known as the Diels-Alder reaction. A diene is a hydrocarbon with two double bonds. The Diels-Alder reaction converts dienes and alkenes into ring molecules. It is important in the synthesis of many polymers, steroids, and alkaloids.

1938 – David Baltimore was born.

Baltimore is an American biologist who shares the 1975 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Renato Dulbecco and Howard Martin Temin for the discovery of retroviruses or viruses that use RNA for their genetic code. Baltimore discovered reverse transcriptase which is essential to the reproductive process of retroviruses.

1930 – Stanley Lloyd Miller was born.

Miller was an American biochemist best known for the Miller-Urey experiment. This experiment showed organic compounds could be created using inorganic materials through a simple process. He was interested in discovering the mechanisms that could originate life on planets and was a pioneer in the field of exobiology, the study of life on other planets.

1900 – Fritz Wolfgang London was born.

London was a German-American physicist who pioneered quantum chemistry. He described the effects of intermolecular dipole forces and created a mathematical representation of the hydrogen molecule. He also developed a model with his brother Heinz to describe the electric fields around superconductors due to current.

1857 – Julius Wagner-Jauregg was born.

Julius Wagner-Jauregg
Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857 – 1940)
Universität Graz

Wagner-Jauregg was an Austrian physician who treated mental diseases by inducing a fever, creating the practice known as pyrotherapy.

He discovered a treatment for dementia paralytica caused by neurosyphilis that used the malaria parasite. He was awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize in Medicine for this discovery. This process is no longer used since it kills 15% of the patients.

He also treated psychotic patients who experienced a delay of puberty by introducing tissue from thyroids and the ovaries (depending on the sex of the patient). His treatment diminished the patient’s psychosis and stimulated the onset of puberty.

1792 – John Frederick William Herschel was born.

1788 – Antoine-César Becquerel was born.

Antoine César Becquerel
Antoine César Becquerel (1788 – 1878)

Becquerel was a French scientist whose research into electrochemistry lead him to discover electrolysis, a method to separate metals from ore. He also invented a constant current electrochemical cell. He was the grandfather of Henri Becquerel, the discoverer of radiation.

1765 – Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce was born.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765 – 1833)

Niépce was a French inventor who is considered the inventor of photography. He invented a process called heliography or ‘sun writing’ that used bitumen dissolved in lavender oil spread onto a sheet of paper. The paper was used in a camera obscura setup and exposed for up to eight hours. The paper would then be washed again with lavender oil to remove the unexposed sections of bitumen to show the image.