- Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century by Omar W. Nasim
Omar W. Nasim’s superb book, Observing by Hand, examines the celestial through what may initially seem to be its mundane antithesis: paperwork. Here the term refers to the solidly material observation books, graphite pencils, and pens—among other objects—used by astronomers to represent nebulae through much of the nineteenth century. Nasim successfully demonstrates that the hand-drawn illustrations, maps, and charts that preceded publication and public consumption of astronomical images offer crucial insights into scientific processes and theories of observation and cognition. He argues that “ocularcentric” theories that focus exclusively on the interplay of mind and eye in scientific endeavors overlook the crucial work of the hand, which was an essential part of the process of observation itself (241). Achieved through an elaborate interplay of vision and manual labor, Nasim argues, scientific observation of the nebulae is a “craft,” one that can therefore be analyzed through methods of close reading and analysis generally used by art historians (4).
Indeed, Nasim’s book offers an innovative synthesis of methodologies deriving from art history, history of science, and theories of cognition. The result is an often breathtaking and consistently satisfying discussion of a rarely discussed period of astronomical history, accompanied by high-quality (and truly beautiful) illustrations. These include the “working images” produced by astronomers such as Sir William Herschel and William Parsons (the third Earl of Rosse) in observing the nebulae through increasingly powerful telescopes (10). These images were inscribed in private observation books as part of a process of “familiarization” with the nebulae as phenomena that barely crossed the threshold of the visible (36). The act of drawing the same object repeatedly and then of comparing and consolidating these drawings with those of other observers produced a “history of looking, discerning, and recording” (18). Published versions of nebulae were, in a sense, palimpsests of this history, a “whole series of controlled glimpses turned into an extended and steady gaze” (18). As Nasim argues, examining these final images by themselves obscures the fact that observation is an active and historically determined process: “we glean the nature of scientific observation from the records, processes, and publishable results rather than form one momentary act of looking” (239).
The structure of Observing by Hand allows for multiple insights into the subject of nebular observation. Framed by a prologue that outlines a useful history of research into nebulae and by a far-reaching conclusion, the heart of the book consists of four chapters. Focusing on Lord Rosse’s astronomical work, the first chapter traces the process of nebular observation from initial sketches to the finality of published work. It is here that the labor of familiarization is presented most completely, through what Nasim describes as “a way of coming to terms with what can be made out only over a long time spent with an object” (36). Tracing the transition from sketches in observation books to those consolidated in ledgers and ultimately presented in published work demonstrates how observation functioned as a cumulative manual, visual, and intellectual labor. Moving away from private inscriptions, the second chapter follows the circulation of two images of the same nebula, M51, by Lord Rosse, tracing their inscription in scientific and artistic contexts. The chapter ends with a glance at Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) that seems magically to transform the reader’s view of this famous painting; all of a sudden, we perceive the celestial swirls as an aesthetic rendition of a nebula. The third chapter takes a “history of philosophy” approach to pursue the ways in which nineteenth-century theories of mind affected the work of observation (19). Nasim compares John Herschel’s belief that the workings of [End Page 182] the mind would influence observational drawings to E. P. Mason’s efforts to push this influence aside in communicating results. The discussion of Herschel is particularly fascinating, centering as it does on the astronomer’s adherence...