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The discovery of Uranus

Someone once put forward an attractive theory. Throughout the Earth’s annual revolution around the sun there is one point of space always hidden from our eyes. This point is the opposite part of the Earth’s orbit, which is always hidden by the sun. Could there be another planet there, essentially similar to our own, but always invisible? If a space probe today sent back evidence that such a world existed it would cause not much more sensation than Sir William Herschel’s discovery of a new planet, Uranus, in 1781.

Herschel was an extraordinary man – no other astronomer has ever covered so vast a field of work – and his career deserves study. He was bom in Hanover in Germany in 1738, left the German army in 1757, and arrived in England the same year with no money but quite exceptional music ability. He played the violin and oboe and at one time was organist in the Octagon Chapel in the city of Bath. Herschel’s was an active mind, and deep inside he was conscious that music was not his destiny; he therefore read widely in science and the arts, but not until 1772 did he come across a book on astronomy. He was then 34, middle-aged by the standards of the time, but without hesitation he embarked on his new career, financing it by his professional work as a musician. He spent years mastering the art of telescope construction, and even by present-day standards his instruments are comparable with the best.

Serious observation began in 1774. He set himself the astonishing task of‘reviewing the heavens’, in other words, pointing his telescope to every accessible part of the sky and recording what he saw. The first review was made in 1775; the second, and most momentous, in 1780-81. It was during the latter part of this that he discovered Uranus. Afterwards, supported by the royal grant in recognition of his work, he was able to devote himself entirely to astronomy.

Papers flooded from HerscheFs pen and among these there was one sent to the Royal Society in 1781, entitled An Account of a Comet. In his own words, on Tuesday the 13th of March, between ten and eleven in the evening, while he was examining the small stars in the neighbourhood of H Geminorum, he perceived one that appeared visibly larger than the rest; he suspected it to be a comet.

Herschel’s care was the hallmark of a great observer; he wasn’t prepared to jump to any conclusions. Also, to be fair, the discovery of a new planet was the last thought in anybody’s mind. But further observation by other astronomers besides Herschel revealed two curious facts. For a comet, it showed a remarkably sharp disc; furthermore, it was moving so slowly that it was thought to be a great distance from the sun, and comets are only normally visible in the immediate vicinity of the sun. As its orbit came to be worked out the truth dawned that it was a new planet far beyond Saturn’s realm, and that the ‘reviewer of the heavens’ had stumbled across an unprecedented prize. Hcrschel wanted to call it georgium sidus (Star of George) in honour of his royal patron King George 111 of Great Britain. The planet was later for a time called Herschel in honour of its discoverer. The name Uranus, which was first proposed by the German astronomer Johann Elert Bode, was in use by the late 19th century.

Uranus is a giant in construction. Uranus’ atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen and helium, with a trace of methane. In 1977, the American astronomer James L. Elliot discovered the presence of five rings encircling the equator of Uranus, four more rings were discovered in January 1986 during the exploratory flight of Voyager In addition to its rings, Uranus has 15 satellites (‘moons’), the last 10 discovered by Voyager 2 on the same flight; all revolve about its equator and move with the planet in an east-west direction. The two largest moons, Titania and Oberon, were discovered by Herschel in 1787. The next two, Umbriel and Ariel, were found in 1851 by the British astronomer William Lassell. Miranda was discovered in 1948 by the American astronomer Gerard Peter Kuiper.

1. According to the first paragraph the discovery of a new planet hidden from our eyes
1) is a matter of fact.
2) would not be more sensational than the discovery of Uranus.
3) is quite probable.
4) needs some time to prove.

2. Herschel thought of himself as
1) an amateur musician.
2) a scientific mind.
3) a professional astronomer.
4) a person devoted to the arts and music.

3. Herschel discovered Uranus
1) during his second observation.
2) during his first review.
3) after many years of observing the sky.
4) when he was 34.

4. When Herschel saw a new ‘star’ he
1) immediately wrote to other astronomers.
2) thought of it as a comet.
3) knew that was a new planet.
4) made an immediate conclusion.

5. “The ‘reviewer of the heavens’ had stumbled across an unprecedented prize” means that Herschel
1) was offered a high position at the Royal Society.
2) accidentally discovered a planet.
3) was given an honor to name the new planet.
4) had anticipated the discovery of a new planet before.

6. The new planet was called Uranus by
1) other astronomers of the Royal Society.
2) King George III of Great Britain.
3) Johann Elert Bode.
4) Herschel himself.

7. Uranus’s two largest moons were discovered by
1) William Lassell.
2) Gerard Peter Kuiper.
3) Herschel.
4) Voyager 2.

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