Saturday 8th June All-day Conference: John Herschel – the Last Polymath

Join us for a packed day of talks exploring the life and work of Victorian polymath, Sir John Herschel.

Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), son of the astronomer William Herschel and nephew to Caroline Herschel, was the most influential natural philosopher of the Victorian period.

His long career encompassed astronomy, mathematics, physics, geology, chemistry, as well as art, literature, politics, and the invention of photography.

Herschel’s 1831 Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy was the first book in English on the philosophy of science and had a formative influence on a generation of scientists, including Charles Darwin.

If being scientific in Victorian England meant to be as much like John Herschel as possible, this conference will explore what it meant to be John Herschel. This unique day of talks promises to explore all aspects of Herschel’s life from philosophy to art.

A panel of experts will examine the life and learnings of Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871), the most influential natural philosopher of the Victorian age.

09:30 – 10:00 Welcome and introduction

  • Charles Draper, chairman of the Herschel Society
  • John Herschel’s Enduring Legacy, Stephen Case, Olivet Nazarene University

10:00 – 11:30 Herschel’s Life and Influence

  • A Biographical Sketch, Emily Winterburn, independent scholar
  • Herschel at the Cape, Steve Ruskin, independent scholar
  • Herschel’s Philosophy of Science, Charles Pence, Université Catholique de Louvain

11:45 – 13:15 Herschel’s Natural Philosophy

  • Herschel’s Mathematical Journey, Tony Crilly, Middlesex University, Emeritus
  • Herschel’s Astronomy, Stephen Case, Olivet Nazarene University
  • Herschel’s Geology, Gregory Good, American Institute of Physics, Emeritus

14:00 – 15:30 Herschel’s Methodology

  • Herschel’s Art of Drawing, Omar Nasim, University of Regensburg
  • Herschel’s Photographic Work, Kelley Wilder, De Montfort University
  • Herschel and Scientific Standardization, Edward Gillen, University College, London

15:45 – 17:00 External Perspective and Round Table

  • External Perspective, Mike Edmunds, Vice-president Herschel Society
  • Round table Q & A, all contributors plus Mike Edmunds

17:00 – 17:45 Drinks and Close

Tickets (£18 for members of either BRLSI or Herschel Society, £36 for non-members, proceeds to the BRLSI) are available here.  For those who attend at Queen Square, the tickets include tea, coffee and post-event drinks.

Friday 3rd May 2024 Jantar Mantar

Richard Cox and Professor Mike Edmunds

Image credit: Richard Cox

Jantar Mantar translated means Instrument Calculation which refers to the functions of the instruments for astronomical measurements documenting the heavens based upon the principles of Galileo. The Jaipur site, the largest of the four existing Jantar Mantars has 18 instruments. This site was created in the 1720s and recently underwent extensive renovation, the first major work since an earlier extensive renovation supervised by Chandra Dhar Sharma Guleri during the reign of Maharaja Sawi Madho Singh in 1901.

The Jaipur site contains the largest sundial in the World, Samat Yantra, 27 metres high and synchronised accurately to local Jaipur time.

The extraordinary series of Stone Observatories, Jantar Mantars were created and built by Sawa Jai Singh II (1688 – 1744). I will be presenting photographs taken, for the most part, from Jaipur,. There will also be brief references to the JMs in Delhi (the first observatory to be built) and in the holy city of Ujain.

This illustrated talk will present photo documentary images that I have observed and recorded over many repeated visits between 1993 – 2018, and will be assisted by Professor Mike Edmunds providing expert interpretive support as my background is in Fine Art not Astronomy.

Following the premature death of his father Bishan Singh, Sawa Jai Singh II became the Maharaja at the age of eleven . He was a keen and diligent scholar extensively studying Sanskrit and Persian, Mathematics and especially astronomy. His astronomical studies included Mirza Ulugh Begs astronomical table, Flamsteads Historia de Coelestis, De La Aires tabulae and syntaxes of Ptolemy. Some of these manuscripts can be viewed at the City Palace Museum. When designing the astronomical instruments Jai Singh II had Euchids Elements of Geometry translated into Sanskrit and based their interpretation upon the Tables of Zij Muhammadshahi.

Jai Singh II was remarkable in several other ways, in 1725 started relocating the Capital City replacing the Amber Fort in 1733 to the valley below. By doing so he created the new city based upon the Hindu grid pattern designed by the city planner Vidyadhar Bhattacharya. Jaipur, named after its founder later to become known as the Pink City. It is said that in celebration of the impending visit by Prince Albert the city was painted pink -the colour in reality being more akin to pastel brown – unfortunately the Prince died before he could see the city for himself. Jai Singh was a great warrior and distinguished himself in conflict, the period in which he lived was a very unsettled and turbulent time. He must have been a physically imposing man, judging by the size of his pyjamas on display in the Palace Museum and the size of his sword.

*Sawai Jai Singh and His Astronomy. Virendra Nath Sharma. 1995 ISBN 81-208-1256-x

Richard Cox studied Fine Art for 8 years moving to live in Cardiff in 1975 with a background in teaching in various Art Schools in UK and abroad. This included as VL at the RCA, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Kunstakademiet i Trondheim and Delhi College of Art.

Senior Arts Officer (Visual Arts) at SEWales Arts Assoc. and The Arts Council of Wales running the Artist in Residence programme (AiR) and international exchanges between 1983-98. SL Cardiff School of Art & Design 2003-2013.

Strong links with India and toured his exhibition Subterranean Architecture. Stepwells in NW India to 17 galleries In the UK, USA and India between 2008-2018. This tour included Jantar Mantar.

He has been AiR in the UK, Japan, India, Norway and the USA, exhibiting extensively with his work is held in 27 public and over 100 private collections.

Mike Edmunds is Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University in Wales. Both his first degree (Natural Sciences) and Ph.D (Astronomy) were from the University of Cambridge. He moved to Cardiff University in 1974, where he was in succession Research Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor, serving as Head of School between 2002 and 2005. Prof. Edmunds. main areas of research have been in the determination and interpretation of the chemical composition of galaxies and the Universe, and on the origin of interstellar dust.

In recent years he has worked in the history of astronomy. He also has particular interests in physics education and public outreach. He has served on the Councils (and many committees and panels) of the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the UK Science and Technology Council. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics and of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was the 2004 George Darwin lecturer on “The Elementary Universe” for the Royal Astronomical Society, and has just retired as Chair of their Astronomical Heritage Committee. He is also Chair of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, and Chair and Member of the Institute of Physics Curriculum and Welsh Education Committees.

He is also a Vice-President of our society – the Herschel Society and President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A recording will be available here soon.

Wednesday 3rd April 2024 Introduction to John Herschel

Dr Emily Winterburn

Wednesday 3rd April 2024 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Meet John Herschel,  much less famous today than either his father or his aunt yet in his day he represented the very definition of what a scientist should be.  In 1824, as the BRLSI began, he too was just starting out. On the 8 June, there will be a Conference dedicated to every aspect of the life & work of this great man, but for today let’s just get to know him. What did he do? Why should we care about him? What were his politics? What was his family life like? Come along on 3rd March and find out.

This introduction to John Herschel will prepare us for the all-day conference on Saturday 8th June 2024,

Emily Winterburn is one of the authors for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to John Herschel. She is also the author of a biography of John’s aunt, Caroline Herschel (The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel, 2017) and completed her PhD on the Herschel family in 2011. She is the former curator of astronomy at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Today she is a teacher and writer living in Leeds. She is also honorary vice president of the Society for the History of Astronomy.

Tickets (£6/£3), proceeds to the BRLSI) available here.

Friday 2nd February 2024 Johannes Kepler: his Life and Work

Nicholas Pallett

Friday 2nd February 2024 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) – astronomer, mathematician, visionary, dreamer, explorer, astrologer is best known for his laws of planetary motion, providing one of the foundations for Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.
An illustrated talk focusing as much on the personal and family life of this ‘weird genius’, as on his towering scientific achievements and their impact.

Nicholas Pallett B.Sc. has worked mainly as a musician, singer, lyricist & composer in many genres including musical theatre, and in many parts of the world, and more recently as a music teacher/lecturer for the Bristol & Bath Education Authorities.
In the fields of Astronomy and the History of Science he considers himself an ‘amateur’, in the true sense of the word.

Tickets (£6/£3, proceeds to the BRLSI) available shortly.

Friday 1st March 2024 From Algebra to the Secrets of the Universe: the Fascinating life of Mary Somerville

Elisabetta Strickland

Friday 1st March 2024 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Part of a BRLSI series of events around International Women’s Day to celebrate Extraordinary Women.

The image is at Somerville College, the artist is James Rannie Swinton (1844).
Photo credit: Somerville College, University of Oxford (CC BY-NC).

It is an astonishing experience to go back in time and explore the world where study and research for women were forbidden by law. The fascinating life of the Scottish scientist and popular writer Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) brings us back in this past and, in the same time, describes the fight of one great dame for equal rights and opportunities for women. Her fight was not political, in a sense that she did not try to influence the public opinion with her words or her actions, but by winning the respect of the scientific world. Her extraordinary mathematical talent only came to light through fortuitous circumstances. Barely taught to read and write as a child, all the science she learned and mastered was self taught. By giving this example of scientific competence, she backed the struggle towards education opportunities for women that lead to their access to schools. The Somerville College in Oxford was named in her honor in 1879 and produced famous graduates like Dorothy Hodgkin, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.

Elisabetta STRICKLAND is honorary professor at the Department of Mathematics of the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. She has been Vice-President of the National Institute of Advanced Mathematics (INdAM) from 2007 to 2015. From 2014 to 2022 she has been a member of the Women in Mathematics Committee (WIM) of the European Mathematical Society. She is Honorary President of the Central Committee for the promotion of equal opportunities, workers’ welfare and non discrimination (CUG) of the University of Rome “Tor Vergata”. She is also co-founder of the Gender Interuniversity Observatory GIO over the state Universities in Rome. Since 2016 she is Ambassador of Italy in the Committee of Women in Mathematics (CWM) of the International Mathematical Union.

In 2013 she has been awarded from the Capitoline Administration the Prize “Excellent Women in Rome”.

A recording will be available in April 2024.

Please note that you can also buy tickets for the whole BRLSI Extraordinary Women programme through the above link. A list of all the talks with links to more information can be found here.

Monday 4th March 2024 Ada Lovelace: the  Making of a  Computer Scientist

Monday 4th March 2024 7.30 pm in the BRLSI, can be attended either in the BRLSI or remotely on Zoom

Part of a BRLSI series of events around International Women’s Day to celebrate Extraordinary Women.

The image is from the book cover (see below), credit: Bodleian Library

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, (1815-1852), is sometimes called the world’s first computer programmer and has become an icon for women in technology. But how did a young woman in the 19th century, without access to formal school or university education, acquire the knowledge and expertise to become a pioneer of computer science?   The answer lies in the archives in Oxford’s  Bodleian Library, which show a talented an inquisitive child growing into a serious scientist with a remarkable knowledge of cutting edge mathematics of the day, and a fascination with contemporary scientific developments – from mesmerism to photography.

Professor Ursula Martin CBE FREng FRSE is a fellow of Wadham College Oxford, recently retired from Oxford’s mathematical Institute, where she researched a variety of topics at the intersection of mathematics and computer science. Her work on Ada Lovelace’s mathematics has led to several papers and a recent book “Ada Lovelace: the making of a computer scientist” published by Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

A recording of this lecture will be made available in April.

Autumn 2023 Lecture Programme, Theme ‘Conserving the Planet’

The Bath Preservation Trust Museums are looking at ‘Conservation in Action’ this year, and for the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, this is focused on ‘Conserving the Planet’. The Herschel Society have agreed to collaborate with them on a shared lecture programme on this theme which will consist of 4 lectures given from September to December 2023 at the BRLSI, Queen Square, Bath.

Friday 8th September 2023The Right Light at NightSteve Tonkin
Friday 13th October 2023The Astrophysics of Earth: light-life interactions beyond photosynthesisDr Robert Fosbury
Friday 3rd November 2023A cluttered and noisy sky? Meeting the challenge of satellite constellations (and why you should care)Dr Robert Massey
Friday 1st December 2023Space debris: Hazards, Situational awareness and responsible use of spaceDr Philippe Blondel

Friday 2 December 2022 The Fermi Paradox, or “Where is Everybody?”

Friday 2 December 2022 7.30 pm BRLSI in-person and Zoom lecture

Michael Perryman
Adjunct Professor, University College Dublin

This talk examines the question of whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the Universe. The simple answer is that we do not know. But by looking at the huge numbers of stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy and beyond, the vast numbers of planets now known to exist around them, and the immense age of the Universe throughout which life might have developed, we can formulate the question in a different way: if alien civilisations have developed elsewhere, surely we might see some sorts of evidence for their existence? In 1950, the distinguished physicist Enrico Fermi famously formulated the paradox as ‘Where is everybody?’. Others have referred to it as the ‘Great Silence’ problem. It turns out to be a deceptively simple question that presents a challenge for theories assuming a naturalistic origin of life and intelligence, and possibly one with some alarming conclusions.  I will look at the problem in a number of ways, including:  What is life? Do we have any ideas of how common life, or intelligent life might be? Is the Earth special in the conditions under which life on our planet formed?  What sorts of searches for life are being carried out today?  And if we find nothing, what are the implications of one possible conclusion: that we are alone in the Universe…

Michael Perryman obtained a degree in physics, and a PhD in radio astronomy, at Cambridge University. During a 30-year career with the European Space Agency, he was the scientific leader of the Hipparcos space astrometry mission between 1981-1997, and of the follow-on Gaia space astrometry mission between 1995-2008. He was Professor of Astronomy at Leiden University, The Netherlands, between 1993-2009, and has received various awards for his leadership of space astrometry, including the Gold Medal of the French Astronomical Society, the Academy Medal of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences, the Tycho Brahe Prize of the European Astronomical Society, and the international Shaw Prize in Astronomy 2022. He has held a position as Adjunct Professor, University College Dublin since 2013.

This lecture was not recorded.

Friday 23 Sep 2022 7.30 pm BRLSI Film showing – William Herschel and the Universe

Director George Sibley

Image credit: (c)

This event is part of H200 – the Herschel Society’s celebration of William Herschel on the bicentenary of his death.

William Herschel, a 42 year old musician and amateur astronomer, discovered the first “new” planet in history in 1781. His telescopes, observations and theories transformed what was the clockwork universe imagined by Isaac Newton into the evolutionary and wonder-filled cosmos we know today. This is the story of how modern astronomy took shape under the pre-industrial skies of the 18th century.

George Sibley is a film director based in Florida. He plans to be present to introduce the film, and to answer questions in the discussion that follows. A trailer of the film is available here.

The film is available on Amazon.

Sept/Oct 2022 Herschel 200: This month we marked the bicentenary of the death of William Herschel in 1822 with a series of three very special events:

Friday 23 Sep 2022 7.30 pm BRLSI Film showing – William Herschel and the Universe. The film director, George Sibley, from Florida, will introduce the film and answer questions afterwards.

Friday 30 Sep 2022 7.30 pm St Swithin’s Church, The Paragon, Bath – Concert: A Celebration of William Herschel’s Music, Performed by The Bristol Ensemble and the Vauxhall Players and introduced by Dr Matthew Spring.

Saturday 1 Oct 2022 09:30 – 17:45 BRLSI All-day conference – A Celebration of William Herschel’s Astronomy

You can also attend the two BRLSI events remotely on Zoom. Click on the above links for more information and further links to video recordings and the 3-D virtual telescope,

A full list of Herschel 200 events, including those of other organisations in the UK and other countries can be seen here – International Herschel 200 event list.