29 August 2013

The Use of Knowledge

Grant Allen, "William Herschel, Bandsman," in Biographies of Working Men (New York: E. & J. B. Young, 1890), pp. 109-111:
Poor Carolina was horrified at the house at Datchet, which seemed terribly desolate and poor, even to her modest German ideas; but William [Herschel] declared his willingness to live permanently and cheerfully upon "eggs and bacon" now that he was at last free to do nothing on earth but observe the heavens. Night after night he and Carolina worked together at their silent task — he noting the small features with his big telescope, she "sweeping for comets" with a smaller glass or "finder." Herschel could have had no more useful or devoted assistant than his sister, who idolized him with all her heart. Alexander, too, came to stay with them during the slack months at Bath, and then the whole strength of the family was bent together on their labour of love in gauging the heavens.
But what use was it all? Why should they wish to go star-gazing? Well, if a man cannot see for himself what use it was, nobody else can put the answer into him, any more than they could put into him a love for nature, or for beauty, or for art, or for music, if he had it not to start with. What is the good of a great picture, a splendid oratorio, a grand poem? To the man who does not care for them, nothing; to the man who loves them, infinite. It is just the same with science. The use of knowledge to a mind like Herschel's is the mere possession of it. With such as he, it is a love, an object of desire, a thing to be sought after for its own sake; and the mere act of finding it is in itself purely delightful. "Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies; and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her." So, to such a man as Herschel, that peaceful astronomer life at Datchet was indeed, in the truest sense of those much-abused words, "success in life." If you had asked some vulgar-minded neighbour of the great Sir William in his later days whether the astronomer had been a successful man or not, he would doubtless have answered, after his kind, "Certainly. He has been made a knight, has lands in two counties, and has saved £35,000." But if you had asked William Herschel himself, he would probably have said, with his usual mixture of earnestness and humility, "Yes, I have been a very fortunate man in life. I have discovered Uranus, and I have gauged all the depths of heaven, as none before ever gauged them, with my own great telescope."