The genius who lived in Sunderland but is better known on Saturn

The word “genius” is among the most overused and misappropriated in today’s English language.

By Tony Gillan
Saturday, 19th October 2019, 9:00 am

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William Herschel, astronomer, composer, genius and adopted Mackem.
William Herschel, astronomer, composer, genius and adopted Mackem.

It is routinely applied to musicians, sports stars, actors, comedians or just about anyone who might be more accurately described as “very good”, “talented” or even “competent”.

Along with “genius” in a cluster of cheapening hyperbole we have “amazing” and “incredible.”

When such descriptions are applied to someone because they have balanced a tray of lager on their head on Britain’s Got Nothing Better To Do, it does little for the reputation of someone like William Herschel, 1738-1822.

We would know far less about the universe were it not for former Sunderland resident William Herschel.

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This is because Herschel truly was a genius, whose accomplishments are genuinely both amazing and incredible.

He is best remembered for astronomy, the study of celestial objects, as opposed to astrology, the study of piffle. His discoveries include infrared radiation and the planet Uranus.

He founded sidereal astronomy (measuring time according to the position of the stars), increased our understanding of nebulae (giant gas and dust clouds in space), greatly improved the telescope and made his own eyepieces (the strongest with a magnifying power of 6,450).

In addition to a pile of other scientific achievements that I can’t begin to understand, he was a musician and composer of 24 symphonies, 14 concertos and various other pieces for a range of instruments.

Sunniside. The great astronomer and composer William Herschel lived here. Not that you would know from looking.

Although born in Hanover, he was appointed as an astronomer to George III and knighted in 1816. A busy lad, and clever or what?

And now for the punchline. He lived in Sunderland.

It’s why his English was so good. In the 1760s he resided in various lodgings in what is now Sunniside. It was in Sunderland that he resumed his interest in mathematics and composed six of his symphonies.

When he left Wearside he remained unbeaten in the domino handicap in The Central, a nearby tavern.

Fair enough, we made that last bit up to grab your attention. But the rest of it, and other remarkable stuff besides, is fact.

Patrick Moore described William Herschel as: “The first man to give a reasonably correct picture of the shape of our star-system or galaxy, the best telescope-maker of his time and possibly the greatest observer who ever lived”.

He was so clever that, if he was around today, he would be lassoed into playing for Newbottle in the Sunderland Quiz League, just as soon as they had tracked him down.

What’s odd is that most people in Sunderland don’t know he was ever here.

A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the fascinating blue plaques around the city. A reader, who wants no personal recognition, contacted me to point out that there is no such tribute to Herschel, even though he easily qualifies for one, as per Sunderland City Council guidelines.

Indeed, a gap in Saturn’s rings is named after him, but in Sunderland not a street, building or pub. Not even a pet and certainly not a plaque.

This seems anomalous and something easily and inexpensively rectifiable. If this city has any sort of drum to bang, then it should be banged.

It doesn’t take a genius to work that out.