SHA Spring Conference : Bath 2nd April

2016 Spring Conference in Bath

Text: Carolyn Kennet

Pictures: Len Adam and James Dawson


The 2016 Spring Conference was held on Saturday 2nd April at the Royal Literary and Scientific Institute in Bath.    It was a joint meeting between the William Herschel Society and the Society for the History of Astronomy.

This was the second joint meeting we have held with the William Herschel Society and Chairman Bob Bower expressed how privileged we were to make a return to Bath, the city which William HerschBobBowerel made his home. The surroundings were magnificent especially since it was a beautifully warm spring day.  The conference was extremely well attended by both societies, with over 35 members of the SHA and about 75 people in total attending.  These included a number of guests which were warmly welcomed by both chairmen, Roger Moses from the WHS and Bob Bower from the SHA. Initial introductions for the talks were made by the respective chairmen.  Three of the five talks had a local theme in keeping with Bath and its surrounding area. The morning’s event had three talks scheduled, with two talks to follow in the afternoon. Finally, there was a reception at the William Herschel museum located a few streets away in Bath.

The talks commenced with the SHA chairman Bob Bower welcoming John Chuter, the SHA Somerset survey representative and SHA’s webmaster.  John gave a fascinating talk about the research he had conducted intoJohnChuter Somerset and astronomy for the SHA survey.  The talk ran through some of the more notable local historic astronomers these included Roger Bacon and John Pond.   Next John explained how the local records office hold a treasure trove of documentation in the form of letters to Sir John Hippisley (1804-1898).  These letters include a substantial number from William Lassell, as well as letters from Warren de la Rue, James Nasmyth and William Dawes. The letters are filled with wonderful astronomical detail as well as diagrams. John said that a trip to the Somerset records office for any Lassell fan is a must.  Places to visit in Somerset were Wells cathedral famous astronomical clock and a Somerset Spacewalk near Bridgwater.  Observatories included the Charterhouse observatory, which is home to the Wells and Mendip astronomical society and houses an 18 1/4-inch reflector by Dudley Fuller of Broadhurst Clarkson and Fuller. Finally, a visit over the border in Wiltshire to Wilton house where he discovered a modern observatory in the grounds and would love to learn more about its history and use in the past.  A fuller description of this survey can be found on the Somerset Survey webpage:

Richard Mansfield followed with an enjoyable and interesting talk about the Past, Present and Future of the Bristol Astronomical Society, of which he is current chairman.  The Bristol Astronomical Society is a long standing group that had their first meeting during world war two.   Gordon Taylor held the first membRichardMansfieldership card dated 1943.  Notable members have included William Denning and Leonard Abington Vessey.  The initial fee to be a member was 1 shilling a month.   Richard explained that they were lucky to get the patronage of Sir Bernard Lovell as their first president, although he only acted in the capacity of figurehead as he never did get to travel to any of the Society meetings. The society has strong links to the BAA holding occasional joint meetings.  In 1972 the society established its observatory, the building was opened by Patrick Moore, Steve Pine and Alan Quirk it still houses the Cyril Swindin 12 1/2 inch telescope. This site has now expanded and also houses an 18 ½ inch reflector within a roll off observatory.  Since 1992 they have also produced a magazine called Eclipse.  Professor David Southwood is the current society president. Richard went on to explain that with regular events and a strong membership attendance the Bristol Astronomical Society has a bright future.  More about the Bristol Astronomical Society can be found here:

The final talk during the morning session was from Dr Roger Moses, the William Herschel’s Society’s president.   His wonderful talk was one of recent struggles to understand more about cosmic rays.   The talk was titled ‘A thin RogerMoseshard rain from outer space: 100 years of cosmic ray astronomy’.  Roger explained about the initial discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 and how this lead to experiments by Father Theodor Wulf who developed the gold leaf electroscope.  By 1912 Victor Hess took one of Wulf’s electroscopes onboard a hot air balloon.   These balloon trips could last hours and would reach nearly 6 kilometres and all of this was undertaken in a tweed suit and professors hat!   These experiments lead to many questions about radioactivity within Earth’s atmosphere. Roger went on to explain how in 1933 Carl Anderson discovered the first antiparticle the positron using a cloud chamber.  It would take another thirty years for scientists to reach a greater understanding of the processes these particles go through. Work at higher altitudes within the 1970’s became very expensive and there was no guarantee of success and sometimes the high altitude balloons were lost. This cost was negated by putting the experiments into the satellite Ariel 6, launched in 1979, with experiment HEAO C onboard.  Roger moved on to discuss the current understanding of cosmic rays.  He then explained that on contact with the magnetic field they create the auroral lights.  Interestingly it only takes one particle to boil a cup of coffee!  We were finally shown some amazing photographs of active galaxies from which these particles originate from such as M87.  This talk gave a fascinating insight the recent understanding of cosmic rays and we thank Roger for sharing his expertise in this subject.

After lunch Professor Francis Ring, a founding member of the William Herschel Society, its current vice Chairman, editor of WHS publication The Speculum spoke about William Herschel and his links with The Bath Philosophical Society.  It was especially gratifying to have a talk about William Herschel within historic Bath. We thank Francis for giving this fascinating insight into Bath at the time of William Herschel’s residence in the city. FrancisRingFrancis explained how Bath was a crucial melting pot for science and culture in the 18th century.  There was a large amount of buildings being built and it was forming into an elegant city.  Herschel had arrived in Bath as the organist for one of these new buildings the Octagon Chapel.  As well as this Bath had a large number of coffeehouses and tea rooms in which educated people would meet.  Francis explained this encouraged an enlightenment of ideas to occur Bath, where science could be discussed freely.  In Bath 250 year ago a philosophical group formed out of the Agricultural Society.  Twenty-seven people were invited to form this new society, which would meet twice weekly.   The founding members included famous names such as Joseph Priestley, William Smith, John Bryant, Benjamin Smith, William Falconer and William Oliver. Two other members which were crucial to Professor Ring’s talk were William Watson and William Herschel.  Francis explained how William Watson had met William Herschel in River Street in Bath.  Herschel had been observing through his 7ft telescope in the street outside his house.  From this they would form a friendship which would be very fortuitous to Herschel. Francis argued it would be the well-connected Watson who would be responsible for Herschel rapid rise in fortunes.  Unfortunately, The Bath Philosophical Society collapsed at as similar time to the departure of William Herschel from Bath.  We thank Francis for his fascinating contribution to the day’s talks.

Introduced by Bob Bower, the final talk of the day was by David Love about his DavidLoveresearch into the life of Johannes Kepler.  David Love has recently had his expertly researched book on Johannes Kepler published by Prometheus Press.  He gave an infectious talk on Kepler who was one of his heroes.  The talk started by looking at Kepler’s early life, how he had been educated in the Greek teachings of Plato and Aristotle, with the Earth at the centre of solar system.  David explained that Kepler had been introduced to Coperincism at university and he liked the idea of the heliocentric solar system, although many did not.  David moved on to his time in Graz Austria where he was a maths teacher.  It was here in Graz that Kepler came to his first two theories.  David explained how Kepler had to flee Graz in 1600 due to religious persecution.  This would actually become a common theme in his life.  He worked briefly under Tycho Brahe, until Tycho’s death in 1601.  He was then able to take on Tycho’s position as imperial mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor. It was here that he found his first two laws of planetary motion. Up to now David explained previous theories had all used circles so Kepler’s use of an ellipse was a massive leap forward in understanding.  Kepler was now using maths to accurately predict the motion of the planets.  These laws took 5 years to reach and were published in the 1609 book Astronomica Nova.  Once again Kepler would have to move, this time to Linz, where he would spend the next 15 years. David explained that it was in Linz that he would devise his third law of planetary motion.  Kepler died in 1630, unfortunately there is no grave as this was destroyed in the 30-year war.  David explained that Kepler’s greatest legacy was that he used mathematical concepts to accurately predict the location and motion of objects in the night sky.  David Love’s book is called Kepler and the Universe: How one man revolutionized astronomy.

ThAllanChapmanere were a large number of questions from the audience of which David and Allan Chapman were generous enough to give full and clear answers to. This part of the conference ended with the chairman thanking all five speakers for their enjoyable contributions to the day’s events.   Also thanked were Mike Leggett and his wife Pat who had worked tirelessly to get this event off the ground and for their work on the day welcoming members and guests alike.  The meeting was closed and excited delegates were invited to make a short trip to the local Herschel Museum.


The museum is located at 19 New King Street in Bath and was the lounnamed (3)cation of the discovery of Uranus by William Herschel on the 13th March 1781.  The museum houses three floors of exhibitions relating to William unnamed (8)and Caroline Herschel.  Particularly fascinating is the workroom.   It contained a number of objects including the smelting oven and the famous cracked flagstone floor.  On hand during our visit were a number of museum staff who were happy to answer any questions we had about the Herschel’s. The visit to the museum and the reception that followed was a perfect way in which to complete a fascinating day in Bath.

Posted by John Chuter