Heritage: Upminster’s pioneering astronomer

Eighteenth century Upminster rector the Rev William Derham was a Fellow of the Royal Society and had his own theory about...

Eighteenth century Upminster rector the Rev William Derham was a Fellow of the Royal Society and had his own theory about the stars. Picture: PA Images - Credit: PA

The discovery of planets outside our solar system is one of the great breakthroughs of modern astronomy, says Prof Ged Martin. But it wouldn’t have come as a surprise in Upminster 300 years ago

In 1992, astronomers detected the existence of planets revolving around distant stars. It was the first evidence of other solar systems beyond our own.

I say “detected” because these exoplanets are too far away to be seen.

Ancient exploded stars called pulsars emit steady beeps. Any distortion of the call sign may indicate an orbiting body.

Some stars wobble slightly, revealing the gravitational pull of invisible exoplanets. Faint interruptions to starlight, mini-eclipses, are also evidence of the transit of some orbiting body.

By August 2020, over 4,300 exoplanets had been identified. Thousands more awaited confirmation.

Since only tiny corners of the nearby sky had been searched, it’s likely that trillions of exoplanets exist out there. Most seem ghastly orbs of frozen rock or molten gas, but the law of averages suggests that some must resemble our Earth.

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Although the discovery of exoplanets was an exciting breakthrough, it wouldn’t have caused any surprise in Upminster 300 years ago.

The Reverend William Derham, rector from 1689 to 1735, was a pioneer scientist. A Fellow of the Royal Society, still Britain’s premier scientific body, he attended lectures in London but insisted on riding home afterwards to spend the night in his parish.

Derham lived at High House, a 17th century mansion which stood opposite St Laurence’s church, behind today’s Corbets Tey Road shops.

The footpath across the graveyard along which he walked to work is still there, its gate between the War Memorial and Upminster Park.

Keen on astonomy, Derham made observations from the church tower. He also borrowed a giant telescope, 124 feet long, which he had to wedge in tall trees until he could find a 40-foot- long pole to support it.

In 1715, William Derham published Astro-Theology, a tome designed to reconcile science and religion.

Pulling together suggestions by earlier thinkers and writing for a popular audience, he unveiled a new view of the universe.

Broadly, there were two astronomical theories.

The first, proposed by the ancient Egyptian Ptolemy, put our Earth at the centre of the universe, with the sun and the moon revolving around it.

That seemed obvious – after all, the sun rose every day in the east and set in the west.

But in 1543, the Polish scientist Copernicus argued that the sun was really the focus of the solar system, and the Earth orbited around it.

Church disapproval of this downgrading of our world made astronomy a dangerous business. Galileo had to apologise for supporting Copernicus, Bruno was burned at the stake.

But by Derham’s time, the Copernican theory was generally accepted.

However, because both Ptolemy and Copernicus saw our solar system as the centre of the cosmos, neither could really explain the stars.

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They vaguely assumed that stars were cosmic street lamps, designed to provide a helpful glimmer at night.

Dismissing this unimpressive idea, Derham boldly proposed a third overarching theory.

Borrowing a French spelling, he called it his “New Systeme”. Stars were not just strobe-lights in a celestial ceiling.

“The New Systeme supposeth there are many other Systemes of Stars and Planets, besides that in which we have our residence. Every Fixt Star is a Sun, and encompassed with a Systeme of Planets.”

Our solar system was just one among many. Deep in space, thousands of suns – so distant that we see them just as twinkling points of light – must be orbited by millions more planets.

When asked, “what is the use of so many Planets as we see about the Sun, and so many as are imagined to be about the Fixt Stars?”, Derham boldly replied: “they are Worlds, or places of Habitation.”

Peering into the Upminster sky, William Derham reformulated our conception of the universe, liberating human imagination to soar beyond the confines of the Copernican solar system.

Three centuries later, he was proved right about exoplanets. He was probably wrong in assuming that they’re all inhabited – but we’ll never know.