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Reviewed by:
  • The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture
  • Pamela Gossin (bio)
The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture, edited by David Aubin, Charlotte Bigg, and H. Otto Sibum; pp. xii + 384. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, $94.95, $24.95 paper, 71.00, 16.99 paper.

The work of scholarly editing rarely receives adequate recognition for the fully creative intellectual contributions it makes. Too often it is assumed that the thankless tasks of [End Page 770] critically annotating a key primary text or collecting thematically or topically related essays are—or should be—their own reward. To make such an assumption in the case of this volume, however, would do an immense disservice to the extraordinary skills and insights of these editors and the overall achievement of their final product.

In crafting this collection, this well-tuned team of editors never hits a sour note. The apt title serves as a recurrent aesthetic motif as well as a guiding methodological principle and deeply integrated conceptual framework throughout. The diversity of voices represented by the contributors harmoniously matches that of their nineteenth-century subject matter—the people, places, things, and ideas within and surrounding observatory life—not just within the expected contexts of Britain and America, but in Algeria, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, and Thailand. The masterful introduction provides a cogent mapping of the collection's contents in relation to its organizational framework. The substantive history-of-science-style footnotes enrich the professional utility and pedagogical value of each chapter, while the bibliography and index reflect the greater and interconnected sum of the parts. Over sixty illustrations and photographs bring to visual life a full range of principal players and their instruments, architectural spaces and settings, and the observation and graphical recording of astronomical, meteorological, and geodesic phenomena for a variety of audiences.

As the introduction makes clear, one central purpose of this volume is to dismantle our conventional image of what observatories do and are; it rebuilds our conceptualization brick by brick, emphasizing the multiple roles such spaces played within science, politics, economics, and culture, not the least of which was constructing elements of the "modern western state and society" (2). Our traditional sense of what observatories observed is expanded to include not only heavenly bodies (moon, stars, planets, sun) but also more down-to-earth subjects such as weather, geography, geodesy, geomagnetism, and navigational phenomena. We also gain a more nuanced understanding of the nature of observational science itself, the problematic complexities of developing and employing precision techniques, the gathering and analysis of sensory evidence, and the difficulties of quantifying perception. In several senses, observatories functioned as "representation factor[ies]" (20), developing imaging technologies, interpreting and disseminating their findings, and contributing to and distributing powerful cosmological narratives. Across the nineteenth-century globe, observatories were part lecture hall, part theater, part political stage, demonstrating the many levels upon which the cosmos itself was "contested territory" (24).

The first two essays offer intriguing complements to the relatively familiar story of how imperial power and astronomy played out at Greenwich. Simon Werrett describes how the personal enthusiasms of Emperor Nicholas I—"surveillance and spectacle" (52)—shaped the Pulkovo observatory near St. Petersburg into an apparent model of European prestige and scientific patronage that supported a show of military order and control. Massimo Mazzotti offers a complex account of how Angelo Secchi's program of physical astronomy (proto-astrophysics) at the pontifical observatory at the Collegio Romano generated a strong cosmological narrative. The program was supportive of the omnipotence and freedom of the Creator, and was, after 1870, variously appropriated into the processes and narratives of Italian national identity and nation building. The volatile dynamic between individual vision and political forces [End Page 771] also figures strongly in David Aubin's fascinating explication of eclipse politics in France and Thailand, and in Simon Schaffer's poignant morality tale of the fate of the observers and observatory at Paramatta.

Another important thematic cluster—Guy Boistel on France, Sven Widmalm on Sweden, and Martina Schiavon on France and Algeria—considers the interrelation of astronomical observatory work with naval...


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