‘On the 10th September, 1784, whilst my attention was directed towards that part of the heavens where Belta Lyrae was situated, I was surprised to find this star much less bright than usual, whereupon I suspected that it might be a variable star.’
So begins Observations of a New Variable Star read to the Royal Society in 1785, a variable star being a star that changes brightness on a regular or irregular basis. Its author is one John Goodricke, an amateur, rising astronomer who is but twenty years old – and profoundly deaf.
My previous blogs have told stories of visually impaired people throughout history, but our outreach at BucksVision and BISS (Buckinghamshire Integrated Sensory Services) also concerns our deaf community. I have not mentioned this before, but I am also severely hearing impaired and have been wearing hearing aids since I was three. I now feel it appropriate to tell stories of deaf people throughout history. As it is British Science Week, we will begin with John Goodricke, who I encountered quite by accident in a biography of William and Caroline Herschel, the famous astronomer siblings of the 18th century. William being the discoverer of Uranus and Caroline being the first female scientist to receive payment for her work. Though only three pages of this 250-page book were dedicated to Goodricke, it left a profound impact on me as a person with a severe hearing impairment.
Goodricke was born on the 17th September 1764 in Groningen in the Netherlands. He was of colourful ancestry: diplomats, medieval courtiers, High Sheriffs in York, and royalists during the Civil War. His own father, Henry, was a diplomat and John was his first son, making him the heir apparent to the Goodricke baronetcy. It is not known what sickness caused John to go deaf in his infancy, though scarlet fever and typhoid are the most plausible. John’s family were both financially comfortable and embracing of their son, so they saw to it that despite his disability, he would receive an education. This is where we come to Thomas Braidwood’s Academy for the Deaf and Dumb* in Edinburgh, the first of its kind in Britain.
Braidwood was already an accomplished teacher of mathematics when in 1760 he was approached by a friend seeking advice on how to teach his deaf son. One student became two, and two became three. In the school the children learnt BSL and were taught arithmetic. They learnt how to write, lipread and pronounce long words, though Braidwood only accepted the children of the wealthy. It was not until 1792 when the public Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb was founded, the headmaster being Braidwood’s nephew. Goodricke was an accomplished pupil, his favourite subject being mathematics, which he excelled in later when he attended Warrington Academy.
Financially comfortable, he was able to pursue his interest and talent in mathematics. We do not know exactly what drew him to astronomy, but since the disciplines of mathematics and astronomy are closely linked, the transition is not too radical. Astronomy was not an uncommon or unconventional profession for a gentleman. Besides, in his country house in York, which he had now settled in, the skies would have been undisturbed. It was in York where he met his distant cousin, Edward Pigott, who came from a family of astronomers. His father, Nathaniel, had moved to York with the intention of building an observatory. Through mutual interest in the discipline, Edward and John became close friends and colleagues. They communicated through writing. Edward showed compassion towards the seventeen-year-old and taught him some skills that he had acquired from his own observations and from his father. Pigott had been particularly interested in variable stars, which had grown out of fashion in the astronomical community since the seventeenth century. His father certainly saw it as unconventional and beneath him (we can imagine Nathaniel being a rather pompous type), but this did not deter Goodricke. One such star was Algol, which was among Goodricke’s top priorities for observation. It had been discovered as a variable star in 1667, but the periods and variations of its brightness had not been recorded before. One night in November 1782, five nights after observing Algol to be the ‘same as before’, Goodricke noticed it to be dimmer than usual. This level of dimness had not been recorded before and Goodricke found this incredibly unusual and exciting. Through further observations, the star went through several variations of brightness and activity at an astonishing, rapid pace. It was worthy of mention.
A misunderstanding occurred when Pigott informed his friend William Herschel of the observations. He then wrote separately to the President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, and to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Herschel, excited as usual, began observations straight away. He later attended a Royal Society dinner where he was asked if the rumours of Algol’s remarkable variants of brightness were true. Herschel, believing this to be public knowledge since Pigott had openly informed him of it and did not give explicit instructions to wait for Goodricke, disclosed all of Goodricke’s observations to the Fellows present. He had completely taken the spotlight from Goodricke, who planned to publish an account under his name. The matter of miscommunication was quicky settled, as Pigott and Herschel were friends. The embarrassing affair was put to rest when Herschel stood aside and waited for Goodricke to publish his account in May of 1783. Thus, the credit was rightfully given to Goodricke, though it was Pigott who assisted his observations. We now know that the real cause of variable stars are eclipses caused by planets, which Goodricke did consider, but strangely, he later changed his theory to ‘dark patches’ in the heavens, having been dissuaded by other astronomers.
The discovery gained instant recognition. In 1783, he was awarded the Copley Medal for his discovery, the highest award in the Royal Society. At nineteen, Goodricke remains the youngest recipient of this prestigious award. In 1786, after discovering three more variable stars with Pigott, one of which was recorded in the 1784 paper from above, Goodricke was admitted into the Royal Society. Pigott decided it was time to leave York, but future collaboration and further discoveries were never to be: two weeks after receiving the honour of Royal Society Fellowship, John Goodricke died.
Weather was not a deterrent for astronomers at this time: a clear night was a clear night. If the stars were out, there was work to be done. There was an incident where the Herschel siblings went out in the freezing cold and Caroline’s inkpot became frozen solid, for she was responsible for writing down her brother’s observations. Exposure to the elements lead to fevers, and this is how Goodricke is said to have died at the age of twenty-one, though there is mystery around this. Frustratingly, I was unable to find a definitive diagnosis and even biographers are uncertain. All I can say that it was too soon. Who knows what discoveries and contributions to astronomy Goodricke might have made had he lived longer? A Fellow of the Royal Society and a recipient of the Copley Medal, he had a prosperous career ahead of him. He was certainly admired in his time, by the Pigotts, Banks, Herschel, Maskelyne and the astronomical community.
I do wish there was more to Goodricke’s story, but in his short life, he discovered four variable stars and established a new system of identifying them, as well as providing a clear account of their sometimes-unpredictable change in patterns. Goodricke was fortunate to have the compassion of Edward Pigott, the admiration of the scientific community, the embrace and determination of his family and the teaching of Braidwood. A reminder of the support we should show our deaf community. As I conclude this blog, the night sky is clear. Perhaps Algol is there; perhaps Goodricke himself is watching me write, ensuring my astronomy is correct. Though his life was short, his achievements were great. He deserves to be remembered.
*Dumb is now an outdated, derogatory term, but in Goodricke’s time, it was an accepted word used to describe someone unable to speak due to deafness. We would now, of course, say ‘mute’. I do not condone the use of this term, nor is my intention to cause offence by it, but in writing historical pieces and gaining an understanding of the period, it is important to highlight the use of terms like these.
Gallaudet, E. M. (1875) Deaf-Mute Instruction in Great Britain and Ireland. Gallaudet University Press
Goodricke, J. (1785) Observations of a New Variable Star. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Vol. 75 (1785) pp 153-164. Royal Society
Hoskin, M. (2011) Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel. Princeton University Press
Hunter, J (1994) Homage to John Goodricke. Threepenny Review No. 58 pp 21-22