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A Single Sky: How an International Community Forged the Science of Radio Astronomy by David P. D. Munns (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 506-507 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0063

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
A Single Sky: How an International Community Forged the Science of Radio Astronomy. By David P. D. Munns. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. Pp. vii+ 247. $34.

From the early seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, observational astronomy was a science that relied on—indeed, was defined by—optical telescopes of either the refractor or the reflector type. The invention and use of radio telescopes and antenna systems revealed a surprisingly new and much richer heaven. Radio astronomy profoundly changed the astronomical sciences, as much as or even more than spectroscopy and astrophysics did in the last third of the nineteenth century.

This revolution (not too big a name) has been described in several books and articles, some written by astronomers and others by historians of science and technology. David Munns’s book is different, as it offers a fresh and comprehensive perspective on the emergence of radio astronomy in the period from about 1946 to 1960. A Single Sky is primarily a contextual history of early radio astronomy with an emphasis on social, disciplinary, and educational aspects. Possibly for this reason it does not deal with the development before World War II and only briefly mentions American pioneers Karl Jansky and Grote Reber. Munns develops in fascinating details three major themes: the material culture of the new science, the recruitment and training of students, and disciplinary and national boundaries.

Early radio astronomy was remarkable in several respects. One was that it was developed by physicists and radio engineers rather than astronomers, and another was that it was pioneered in Great Britain and Australia—the United States caught on, but it took some time. The book describes and compares the development in the three countries and their major institutions, of which Jodrell Bank (England) and the Parkes radio telescope (Australia) were among the most important. Munns stresses throughout how the community of radio astronomers was international from the very beginning, involving a continuous trade of scientists, students, and expertise. And yet the internationalism seems to have been limited, for apart from the three mentioned countries Munns only refers to the role of Dutch scientists. I find it problematic that he ignores the Soviet Union altogether. Radio astronomy was in fact cultivated by the Russians early on and there was at least some cooperation across the iron curtain, such as that illustrated by the 1958 symposium in Paris organized by the International Astronomical Union.

A leading theme in the book is the style or culture of science associated with radio astronomy and how it related to the style of other physical sciences in the cold war period. Munns argues convincingly that, although competition was not unknown in radio astronomy, its disciplinary identity [End Page 506] was characterized by openness, cooperation, integration, and mutual respect. Far from delaying progress, this spirit fostered development and helped radio astronomy from being embraced by military and security interests. Whereas earlier historians have stressed the disciplinary antagonism between optical astronomers and the new breed of radio astronomers, Munns dismisses it as a foundational myth.

More generally, Munns distinguishes between “complex-style science” and “community-style science,” where the first label refers to the kind of science, such as nuclear physics, that was part of the military-industrial complex. On the other hand, radio astronomy remained a communitystyle science outside the military. As he summarizes, “the radio astronomers inverted the standard technocratic superpower metanarrative of the Cold War state, with its secrecy, its parochial material immediacy, its rampant nationalism, and most of all its delusional bluster” (p. 174). His book does not disprove this metanarrative, but it offers a welcome corrective to it and generally a more nuanced picture of science in the cold war period.

Last but not least it broadens the picture of early radio astronomy by taking seriously the graduate students and their training. Inspired by Andrew Warwick and other historians, Munns examines how pedagogy entered the field at a very early date, helping to form the new community and attracting disciples to it.

A Single Sky offers a scholarly and meticulously documented analysis of how radio astronomy and its international community came into being. It will be...