The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture

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Overview

The Heavens on Earth explores the place of the observatory in nineteenth-century science and culture. Astonomy was a core pursuit for observatories, but usually not only one. It belongs to a large group of "observatory sciences" that also included geodesy, meterology, geomagnetism, and even parts of physics and statistics. These pursuits coexisted in the nineteenth-century observatory; this collection surveys them as a coherent whole. It illuminates the observatory's importance to technological, military, political, and colonial undertakings, as well as to the advancement and popularization of the mathematical, physical, and cosmological sciences.

The contributors examine "observatory techniques" developed and used not only in connection with observatories but also by instrument makes in their workshops, navy officers on ships, civil engineers in the filed, and many others. These techniques included he calibration and coordination of precision instruments for making observations and taking measurements, methods of data acquisition and tabulation, and the production of maps, drawings, and photographs, as well as numerical, textual and visual representation of the Heavens and the earth. They also encompassed the social management of personnel within observatories, the coordination of international scientific collaborations, and interactions with dignitaries and the public. Focusing on observatory techniques in settings from Berlin, London, Paris and Rome to Australia, Russia, Thailand, and Unites States, The Heavens on Earth is a major contribution to the history of science.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“It is hard to do justice to this excellent book in a short review. . . . The essays as a whole constitute an extremely valuable resource for astronomical historians. . . . The Heavens on Earth is a meticulously-documented scholarly work. . . .” - Allan Chapman, The Observatory Magazine

“The contributors to this book are to be congratulated for putting together a thought-provoking and wide-ranging collection of essays. The editors should be thanked not only for bringing these together but for providing a thorough review of the field in their introduction and the excellent bibliography.” - Rebekah Higgitt, British Journal for the History of Science

“I recommend this book to those interested in the late enlightenment and Victorian period that heralded advances in science and the philosophical stance of astronomy.”

- Ian Welland, Astronomy Now

“This book perceptively explores how observatory practices interacted with cultural and political representations at different levels. As such, the volume is a valuable contribution to the history of astronomy, offering to general and
specialized readers new insights into the social and cultural history of nineteenth-century astronomy.” - Pedro Ruis-Castell, Journal for the History of Astronomy

The Heavens on Earth represents the most comprehensive work yet produced on the political, military and cultural significance of nineteenth-century astronomical observatories. It is highly recommended for all scholars
interested in the instruments and techniques by which those observatories
became the very model of scientific precision.” - Steven Ruskin, Technology and Culture

“In crafting this collection, this well-tuned team of editors never hits a sour note. . . . The masterful introduction provides a cogent mapping of the collection’s contents. . . . [T]his volume provides an extraordinarily useful reframing of a significant aspect of nineteenth-century astronomy. These essays refocus our attention from the facades of those monolithic monuments on the ill to the living, breathing observers within their walls who indefatigably struggled to see, measure, record, and share their vision of heavenly and earthly phenomena.” - Pamela Gossin, Victorian Studies

The Heavens on Earth raises the bar for the historiography of astronomy and observatory techniques. The collection stands out from the existing literature in its attention to the broad cultural context of observatory work and techniques; continental Europe in addition to Great Britain and the United States; the connections between the observatory and ‘popular’ astronomy; and the links between astronomy and concerns such as geodesy, the rating of chronometers, and military science. It is a major contribution to the history of not only astronomy but also nineteenth-century science and its culture.”—Robert W. Smith, University of Alberta, co-author of Hubble: Imaging Space and Time

“This impressive volume is the first to offer a panoramic view of the observatory as site of science, empire, and modernization during its golden age. At the forefront of precision measurement, standardization, number-crunching, and worldwide networking, the nineteenth-century observatory made globalization a reality.”—Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Steven Ruskin
The Heavens on Earth represents the most comprehensive work yet produced on the political, military and cultural significance of nineteenth-century astronomical observatories. It is highly recommended for all scholars interested in the instruments and techniques by which those observatories became the very model of scientific precision.”
Ian Welland
“I recommend this book to those interested in the late enlightenment and Victorian period that heralded advances in science and the philosophical stance of astronomy.”

Pamela Gossin
“In crafting this collection, this well-tuned team of editors never hits a sour note. . . . The masterful introduction provides a cogent mapping of the collection’s contents. . . . [T]his volume provides an extraordinarily useful reframing of a significant aspect of nineteenth-century astronomy. These essays refocus our attention from the facades of those monolithic monuments on the ill to the living, breathing observers within their walls who indefatigably struggled to see, measure, record, and share their vision of heavenly and earthly phenomena.”
Allan Chapman
“It is hard to do justice to this excellent book in a short review. . . . The essays as a whole constitute an extremely valuable resource for astronomical historians. . . . The Heavens on Earth is a meticulously-documented scholarly work. . . .”
Rebekah Higgitt
“The contributors to this book are to be congratulated for putting together a thought-provoking and wide-ranging collection of essays. The editors should be thanked not only for bringing these together but for providing a thorough review of the field in their introduction and the excellent bibliography.”
Pedro Ruis-Castell
“This book perceptively explores how observatory practices interacted with cultural and political representations at different levels. As such, the volume is a valuable contribution to the history of astronomy, offering to general and specialized readers new insights into the social and cultural history of nineteenth-century astronomy.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822346401
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/26/2010
  • Series: Science and Cultural Theory Series
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

David Aubin is Professor of History of Science at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, and a member of the Institut de Mathématiques de Jussieu.

Charlotte Bigg is a research scientist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris).

H. Otto Sibum is Hans Rausing Professor of History of Science and Director of the Office for History of Science at Uppsala University in Sweden.

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Read an Excerpt

THE HEAVENS ON EARTH

Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4640-1


Chapter One

The Astronomical Capital of the World: Pulkovo Observatory in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I

SIMON WERRETT

A high appreciation of astronomy seems inherent in the Romanov race. -WILHELM STRUVE (1862).

After its foundation in 1839, Pulkovo observatory near St. Petersburg quickly became a much-admired model for the organization of observatory sciences. Astronomers deemed acquaintance with Pulkovo and its first director, the Baltic German astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Struve, as paramount to successful observing. George Biddell Airy, British astronomer royal, visiting Pulkovo in 1847 wrote: "No astronomer can feel himself perfectly acquainted with modern observing astronomy ... who has not well studied the observatory at Pulkowa." The American astronomer Benjamin Gould (the younger) said of Struve that his "biography might almost be said to be the history of stellar astronomy during the period of his labors." By the 1860s Struve and Pulkovo had gained a glowing reputation across Europe and America for contributions to the pressing astronomical concerns of the nineteenth century, including the accurate positional surveying of the heavens, searches for double stars and optical pairs for determining stellar parallax, and practical geodesy in pursuit of precision cartography. Astronomers everywhere emulated Pulkovo, the "astronomical capital of the world" (figure 11).

What was distinctive about Pulkovo as an observatory in the mid-nineteenth century? What made Pulkovo the astronomical capital of the world? Examining Pulkovo's local Russian context may provide an answer. Alexander von Humboldt described Pulkovo as an "astronomical city whose form of government may be difficult to conceive." His remark is suggestive of Pulkovo's unique place within the Russian polity, ill fitting the various models that historians have proposed for observatories elsewhere. Pulkovo was not a "Hevelian" observatory, with civic funding and an urban location. With princely patronage and a focus on stellar astronomy, Pulkovo was closer to Tycho's observatory Uraniborg. Jean-Baptiste Biot called it a "Uranian colony," a group of Baltic Germans working in Russia. But Pulkovo also engaged in major state-funded geodesic surveys and was intended to serve a network of imperial observatories. Unlike the British or Dutch empires, the Russian empire grew out of military rather than commercial demands, since in Russia industrialization was never the priority that it was elsewhere. Consequently, Pulkovo did not "keep the books" in the same way as economically minded British astronomers, and it ill fits the model of Greenwich as a center for imperial astronomy focused on the accounting of time to aid overseas colonial exploitation. As a contemporary noted: "Pulkowa is like the palace of an astronomical autocrat, who has but to will, and men and money appear at his call to take the heavens by storm. Greenwich resembles the counting-houses of some of our opulent city merchants, showing more brick than marble, but whose cellars are stored with the accumulated wealth of generations." If Pulkovo did have a precedent, it was perhaps the Paris Observatory, founded by Louis XIV as an act of both symbolic prestige and practical, cartographical administration. This had been the model for Russia's first observatory, in the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences founded by Peter the Great in 1725, and directed by a French astronomer, Joseph Delisle. But by the early nineteenth century the analogy no longer held. The Paris Observatory's nature had changed significantly. As Theresa Levitt shows, Arago tried to make his institution the very opposite of a centralized, absolutist observatory. Pulkovo, meanwhile, expressed the concerns of a continuing autocratic regime in Russia.

In contrast to western European states, Russia adopted new modes of life comparatively recently, beginning in the late seventeenth century and accelerating under Peter the Great. This profoundly shaped the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, making it, according to the Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman, a fundamentally theatrical culture, as Russians imitated foreign manners, traditions, and institutions, from dress and appearance up to government ministries and military organization. Understanding this theatricality is useful in assessing the nature of Pulkovo observatory and Russian imperial astronomy.

Theatricality made Russia seem curiously illusionistic. Mikhail Epstein has said of Russia that "models of reality replace reality itself, which then becomes irrecoverable." It was commonplace in the nineteenth century to characterize Russia as a land where the illusion of order often stood in for real order. Foreigners condemned this theatricality as deception or fakery. After his visit of the country in 1839, the year of Pulkovo's founding, the Marquis de Custine wrote: "Russians have only names for everything, but nothing in reality. Russia is a country of façades. Read the labels-they have 'society,' 'civilization,' 'literature,' 'art,' [and] 'science'-but as a matter of fact, they don't even have doctors.... Russia is an Empire of catalogues: if one runs through the titles, everything seems beautiful. But ... open the book and you discover that there is nothing in it.... How many cities and roads exist only as projects. Well, the entire nation, in essence, is nothing but a placard stuck over Europe." Custine proposed there were really "two nations" in Russia, "one of these nations is the Russia as she is in reality, the other is the Russia as they would like her to seem to Europe."

Custine was being critical, but he misinterpreted the theatrical nature of Russian life. Russians were not trying to deceive, and so demanded no veracity-theatricality was inherent to the culture. Nevertheless, Custine's comments are suggestive as a means for approaching imperial Russian astronomy under Nicholas I. In what follows, two contrasting scenes of Russian imperial astronomy are revealed. The first refers to the Russian empire, a vast, ungovernable territory which Nicholas spent much of his time attempting to discipline through an elaborate system of administration and surveillance. To make the empire more manageable, Nicholas launched surveying and astronomy projects, organized by the military. Pulkovo was intended to coordinate this imperial astronomy, but it was beset with difficulties. In the provinces of empire, Russian astronomy floundered.

To the British, as Schaffer observes of Paramatta observatory, such oblivion would have been loathsome. But for Nicholas what mattered most was the staging of good order, and here may be found the other scene in Russia's astronomical theater-the "Central Observatory" at Pulkovo. Thus Nicholas's second reason for founding Pulkovo was to make a demonstration of imperial patronage of the sciences, to impress audiences in Western Europe and America, and in this he succeeded well. Luxurious patronage enabled Struve to build the best observatory in the world and to create a showcase of the finest observatory techniques then available. This was Russia's second reality, part of the nation "as they would like her to seem to Europe." Later we explore the theatrical side of Pulkovo's activities. Pulkovo is situated in its original context, built on the tsar's estate, where diverse showcase technologies of surveillance were put on display, and to which foreigners were frequently invited to witness the spectacle of Pulkovo's techniques. These visits shaped the observatory's techniques and affected choices over observational conduct. Russian theatricality, it is proposed, was an essential element in making Pulkovo the astronomical capital of the world.

The Empire: Attempts to Build an Imperial Astronomy

Russia's vast expanse has often been characterized as a "burden," and the history of its governance as a continuous struggle to impose regularity on an essentially amorphous and contradictory territory. Unlike the nations of western Europe, with neatly defined borders, metropolitan centers, and relative ease of communications, Russia's continuously expanding empire was defined more by intensities of population and culture than natural or clear political boundaries. Territories were a series of shifting peripheries peopled by Christians, Chinese, Siberians, and Muslims. Tsar Peter I first imported the terms "imperia" and "imperator" into Russia in the early eighteenth century. Between 1800 and 1860 the empire swallowed Poland, Georgia, Baku, Daghestan, Finland, regions of the Caucasus, and Turkish Bessarabia. Only the Crimean War (1853-56) briefly halted Russian expansionism. The boundary of Russia was constantly redefined. Traveling costs and difficulties only added to the vagueness of territory. To command such an extensive empire, Russia's tradition of centralized, autocratic government has been deemed necessary. Administration, rather than history, culture, or tradition, became the chief means to comprehend-and control-Russia's vast territory.

These problems led Russian governments of the nineteenth century to place particular importance on the army as a tool of administration and police. From the time of Peter I, Russia was idealized as a "well-ordered police state," similar to Prussia or Sweden, best administered by the army, which epitomized good order. Little had changed by the reign of Nicholas I, who still conceived of militarism as the best way to manage his empire: "Here [in the army] there is order, there is strict unconditional legality, no impertinent claims to know all the answers, no contradiction, all things flow logically one from the other; no one commands before he has learned to obey, ... everything is subordinated to one definite goal, everything has its purpose." Nicholas became obsessive about creating an orderly state and set about a massive program of centralization and police, intending to turn every branch of government and culture into a machine under constant central surveillance. This policy was enshrined in the reactionary slogan of Nicholas's minister for education Sergei Simeinovich Uvarov, also the minister responsible for founding Pulkovo: "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality." To this "militarism" and "police" could be added. Most government ministers were military officers. Even the Orthodox Church was headed by a colonel. The model of Russia's secret police right up to the KGB, the Third Department of His Majesty's Own Chancellery, was founded by Nicholas. Inspecting everywhere, the tsar himself constantly traveled across Russia, and became so notorious for turning up unexpectedly that citizens devised alarms to warn of his approach. Nicholas wrote to his wife, Alexandra: "One sees everything, and they never know when or where I am going to arrive. They expect me everywhere, and if everything is not well, they at least try and make it so." Even Pulkovo experienced these inspections.

Since it was of course impossible for the tsar to supervise everything personally-and obituary writers thought that Nicholas died trying to do so-he showed much interest in developing technologies of surveillance. Members of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg eagerly helped. Moritz Jacobi designed electromotors to power Russian naval vessels and with Pavel Schilling devised an electric telegraph in the 1830s. Demands for militarized order also led to improved communications, with the construction of Russia's first solid road in 1834 and its first railway in 1837, intended to accelerate troop movements. Astronomy could also improve imperial surveillance. Like the army, astronomers valued order and precision, and their discipline evidently appealed to the tsars, as the epigraph by Struve to this chapter suggests.

Pulkovo's foundation was the culmination of an effort dating back to the reign of Alexander I. Napoleon I's invasion had highlighted the need for accurate maps of the empire and prompted the formation of a Military-Topographical Depot and Hydrographic Bureau to survey Russia's lands and seas and train expert geodesists and hydrographers. At Dorpat University, young Wilhelm Struve trained naval officers (the "General Staff") in astronomy and surveying while orchestrating a survey of Livland in 1815-16. He planned to combine this with further measurements of some 25? 20' of an arc of the meridian between northern Finland and the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea, a significant geodetic and astronomical achievement which would also be crucial for mapping new imperial territories.

Although Dorpat was equipped with a fine observatory, this together with the topographic offices was deemed insufficient for Nicholas's purposes. As the tsar acknowledged in a decree of 24 February 1830, "the interior of the Empire and especially the Asiatic regions has a vast expanse, having a complete lack of astronomical determinations, as a result of which both the private surveys and the works of the General Staff cannot be carried out with the desired advantage and cannot procure for us fundamental geographical knowledge of many parts of the empire." Nicholas ordered the General Staff, the Military-Topographic Depot, and the Academy of Sciences to step up imperial surveys. A series of geodesic expeditions backed by the military followed, determining points on the Baltic coasts (1833), between Lake Baikal and China (1830), between the Ural Mountains and Irkutsk (1832), and between the Black and Caspian seas (1836).

Founded to contribute to this practical astronomy and geodesy, Pulkovo would increase "the efficiency of the ordinary governing of the land," as Wilhelm Struve put it. "For ... it is at Pulkovo that the officers of the General Staff and Topographical Corps are educated in higher geodesy, and there also that questions of surveying are settled in mapping the country alike for taxation, and railways, canals and agricultural improvements." In 1830 a commission of prominent military officers, academicians, and ministers including Admiral Aleksei Greig, founder of the naval observatory at Nikolaev, and Count Uvarov, Nicholas's chief propagandist, were called together to devise plans for Pulkovo, and nine years later the observatory was opened. Struve, with an established personal reputation in surveying, as well as in the training of military surveyors, was put in charge, to be assisted by his son Otto.

Conferred a "ministerial" role similar to that of the Academy of Sciences, Pulkovo would coordinate imperial astronomy and act as the "central" observatory (Glavnaia observatoriia; observatoire central) in a network of hitherto unconnected regional observatories scattered across the empire. Pulkovo's remit included coordination of observatories in Moscow (founded in 1805), Kharkov (1808), Nikolaev (1820), Warsaw (1825), Kazan (1833), and Kiev (1845). These sites had often been created in the wake of colonial conquest. After Finland fell to Russia in 1808, for example, Russian observatories were established in Helsingfors and Åbo. Russian astronomers valued this centralized administration. When they gathered from across the empire to attend the opening of Pulkovo in 1839, astronomers were asked "henceforth to join their efforts with those of the Central Observatory to make astronomers prosper in Russia." The same sentiment permeated Pulkovo's statutes, according to which the Central Observatory was to "take care that the activities in other observatories are in accordance with the current condition of astronomy, that their actions, as far as possible, are coordinated with one another, and that the observations undertaken in them are of as much benefit as possible for science."

Such were the intentions to create an imperial astronomy. Yet in practice Pulkovo's objectives were scarcely met. Like the British at Paramatta, Russians found managing imperial astronomy a difficult business. At first things went well in the metropolis, with astronomy flourishing in Moscow and St. Petersburg after Pulkovo's foundation. Struve trained astronomers in cooperation with Professor A. N. Savich of St. Petersburg University. In Moscow a new observatory was built in 1846-47 under the direction of A. N. Drashusov according to plans inspired by Pulkovo and approved by Struve. The Moscow astronomers B. Ya. Schweitzer, F. A. Bredekhin, and M. F. Khandrikov reiterated Pulkovo's program of stellar astronomy and parallax measurements and introduced new astrophysical techniques to Russia. These were considered successful in the European context.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE HEAVENS ON EARTH Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illutrations vii

Acknowedgement xi

Introduction: Observatory techniques in Nineteenth-Century Science and Society David Aubin Charlotte Bigg H. Otto Sibum 1

1 The Astronomical Capital of the World: Pulkovo observatory in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas Simon Werrett 33

2 The Jesuit on the roof: Observatory sciences, Metaphysics, and Nation Building Massimo Mazzotti 58

3 Eclipse Politics in France and Thailand, 1868 David Aubin 86

4 Keeping the books at Paramatta observatory Simon Schaffer 118

5 Training Seafarers in Astronomy: Methods, Naval schools, and Naval Observatories in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century France Guy Boistel 148

6 Astronomy as Military Science: The Case of Sweden, ca. 1800-1850 Sven Widmalm 174

7 Geodesy and Map Making in France and Algeria: Between Army Officers and Observatory scientists Martina Schiavon 199

8 Michelson and the Observatory: Physics and the Astronomical Community in Late-Nineteenth-Century America Richard Staley 225

9 Even the tools will be free: Humboldt's Romantic Technology John Tresch 253

10 "I thought this might be of interest...": The Observatory as Public Enterprise Theresa Levitt 285

11 Staging the Heavons: Astrophysics and popular Astronomy in the Late Nineteenth century Charottle Bigg 305

12 The Berlin Urania, Humboldtian Cosmology and the Public Ole Molvig 325

Biliography 345

About the Contributors 367

Index 369

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