Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century by Omar W. Nasim, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century

Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century

by Omar W. Nasim

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Today we are all familiar with the iconic pictures of the nebulae produced by the Hubble Space Telescope’s digital cameras. But there was a time, before the successful application of photography to the heavens, in which scientists had to rely on handmade drawings of these mysterious phenomena.            


Today we are all familiar with the iconic pictures of the nebulae produced by the Hubble Space Telescope’s digital cameras. But there was a time, before the successful application of photography to the heavens, in which scientists had to rely on handmade drawings of these mysterious phenomena.             Observing by Hand sheds entirely new light on the ways in which the production and reception of handdrawn images of the nebulae in the nineteenth century contributed to astronomical observation. Omar W. Nasim investigates hundreds of unpublished observing books and paper records from six nineteenth-century observers of the nebulae: Sir John Herschel; William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse; William Lassell; Ebenezer Porter Mason; Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel; and George Phillips Bond. Nasim focuses on the ways in which these observers created and employed their drawings in data-driven procedures, from their choices of artistic materials and techniques to their practices and scientific observation. He examines the ways in which the act of drawing complemented the acts of seeing and knowing, as well as the ways that making pictures was connected to the production of scientific knowledge.             An impeccably researched, carefully crafted, and beautifully illustrated piece of historical work, Observing by Hand will delight historians of science, art, and the book, as well as astronomers and philosophers.

Editorial Reviews

Charlotte Bigg

“In Observing by Hand, Omar W. Nasim focuses on the unpublished notebooks and drawings of six of the most significant nebulae observers of the nineteenth century. He convincingly demonstrates that drawing was a fundamental component of observation and contributed in essential ways in constituting these elusive phenomena, how they were visualized, conceptualized, and studied. This is an impeccably researched and carefully crafted piece of work, and one that provides the closest study of the practices of observation in astronomy—and possibly even in the history of science altogether—that exists to this day.”
Jimena Canales

“Travel to the nebulae during the nineteenth century and find there a time when scientists could observe with their hands rather than eyes, when they could measure by drawing, and where graphite, stylus, and paper joined the telescope in importance. This is when publicly shared standards about what constituted a scientific observation were still in formation—and it is beautiful. Omar W. Nasim invites us to go where few have ventured, to the unstable, informal and private ‘context of discovery,’ and to admire its splendor.”
Robert W. Smith

Observing by Hand is a thoughtful, deeply researched, and important study that engages with significant and fascinating topics: the representations of nebulae—with the focus on drawings—by various observers in the nineteenth century and what such representations can tell us about the nature of scientific observation in general in that century. A major contribution to scholarship.”
Friedrich Steinle

“Observing the position of stars is one thing, observing extended and faint nebulae in a time before photography is quite another. How did researchers pin down their observations, how did they communicate them? In his brilliant analysis of astronomical practice, Omar W. Nasim shows how nineteenth-century observers coped with such challenges. He provides an intriguing case study of how closely observing and communicating are intertwined.”
New Books in Science, Technology, and Society - Carla Nappi

“In Omar W. Nasim’s new book, a series of fascinating characters sketch, paint, and etch their way toward a mapping of the cosmos and the human mind. . . . Nasim’s approach blends the history and philosophy of science in a study that informs the histories of astronomy, images, and paperwork, and that emphasizes the importance of the philosophy of mind and its history in shaping this heavenly narrative. His transdisciplinary approach spans several media that include maps and portraits, oil paintings and etchings, private drawings and collectively produced published images. The book helped me see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, and the starry night above, with new eyes and a new appreciation for the vision and visioning of nineteenth century astronomical observers.”

"Nasim investigates drawings of nebulae from the 19th century. Arguments over the nature of nebulae arose from publications presenting results that came from different telescopes taken with different observing techniques. Nasim takes readers back to the source material--the observing notebooks upon which the publications were based. He argues that the act of drawing complements the acts of seeing and knowing, and that the use of various materials and methods (including observing notes) affected the astronomers' conclusions about the nature of the objects they observed. . . . This brilliant analysis questions the relation between observing and communicating. The publisher uses high-quality paper for excellent reproduction of the copious illustrations. Extensive notes and a 20-page list of works cited add to the value of the book. Highly recommended."
Endeavour - Matthew Stanley

"The book has a great deal to offer anyone exploring the various interconnections between science and art. Its emphasis on the creation, use, and transformation of material records provides an entry point for people from many fields. . . . A gorgeous volume that is both aesthetically and intellectually valuable."
Metascience - David DeVorkin

"Magisterial. . . . [An] exhaustively researched and thoughtfully constructed history."
Journal for the History of Astronomy - Elizabeth A. Kessler

"Nasim has written an in-depth history of nineteenth-century nebular observations. His ability to muster the history of science, art, and philosophy to make evident the essential place of drawing during this period makes this an invaluable book. Even more impressive, the ideas explored here have broad generative potential. The careful attention to the distinctive qualities of different types of images and their uses, as well as the clear demonstration of how image-making shapes understanding have ready applicability to other periods in the history of astronomy and the history of science more generally."

"Nasim reverses the conventional view of drawing procedures of the nineteenth century. He does not enquire into how drawing techniques displayed perception. Rather, he queries how techniques of visualization have been able to guide perception and lead to understanding...Beautifully written and engrossing, this book will be an indispensable companion to the study of nineteenth-century scientific practices. Critically and efficiently merging art history with the history and philosophy of science, Nasim’s work declares that imaging procedures of the nineteenth century deserve new historical and philosophical attention. It is an elegant and convincing exhortation to enlarge the methodical perspective on the development of scientific observation and visualization.”

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Observing by Hand



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08437-4



Lord Rosse and His Assistants

A Cumberland lead pencil is a work of art in itself, quite a nineteenth-century machine.

—John Ruskin, Ariandne Florentina: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving

In The Elements of Drawing (1857), John Ruskin, one of the great nineteenth-century aestheticians, art critics, and art educators, instructed his readers on the importance of "leading lines" in drawing from nature:

It is by seizing these leading lines, when we cannot seize all, that likeness and expression are given to a portrait, and grace and a kind of vital truth to the rendering of every natural form. I call it vital truth, because these chief lines are always expressive of the past history and present action of the thing. They show in a mountain, first, how it was built or heaped up; and secondly, how it is now being worn away, and from what quarter the wildest storms strike it. In a tree, they show what kind of fortune it has had to endure from its childhood.... In a wave or cloud, these leading lines show the run of the tide and of the wind, and the sort of change which the water or vapour is at any moment enduring in its form, as it meets shore, or counterwave, or melting sunshine.... Try always, whenever you look at a form, to see the lines in it which have had power over its past fate, and will have power over its futurity. Those are its awful lines; see that you seize on those, whatever else you miss.

These edifying words from the beginning of Ruskin's chapter "Sketching from Nature" point to significant connections between the act of drawing an object from nature and coming to know its historical course and development. Ruskin claimed there were no outlines per se in nature; but he did believe that these "awful lines" corresponded to a draftsman's ability to pick out and represent the leading lines in an object. Also, he thought they corresponded to certain "lines of energy" indicating possible form, growth, and force.

Early in his career, while browsing the shells section of the British Museum, the twenty-nine-year-old Ruskin made an important and related observation, one embedded in the natural-history thinking of his day, when he noted in his diary

the difference in the nicety of outline in the patterns on shells and plumage and in their forms themselves. Now I think that Form, properly so called, may be considered as a function or exponent either of Growth or of Force, inherent or impressed; and that one of the steps to admiring it or understanding it must be a comprehension of the laws of formation and of the forces to be resisted; that all forms are thus either indicative of lines of energy, or pressure, or motion, variously impressed or resisted, and are therefore exquisitely abstract and precise.

Ruskin's use of the "lines of energy, or pressure, or motion" might owe something to Michael Faraday's productive notion of the "lines of force" of a magnetic field. Be that as it may, it was just such lines that Ruskin suggested might reveal aspects crucial to natural history—such as form, growth, and force—aspects that were also central to much of nebular research.

This chapter focuses on the draftsman's process of "seizing" such "vital truths" as form and growth, plus a force's history and development, through the very act of drawing. By drawing a natural object, one might come to know something about it. Since drawing from nature normally includes a whole range of techniques, my examination in this chapter will not be limited to the pure line. Pencil lines, for instance, can be smudged and manipulated into tonal and shaded expressions for mass and volume that undoubtedly also reveal something about an object. In any case, it is important to note that the revealing and disclosing processes of drawing rarely occur all at once. Drawings are studies in the sense of being preparations and are productive epistemic explorations and avenues into the nature of something. Ruskin reminds us of this when, after detailing the practice of drawing outlines of trees, he writes that "you cannot do too many studies of this kind: every one will give you some new notion about trees."

Ruskin's proposal that we learn about a natural object by finding and following its leading lines may work well enough for trees, mountains, shells, clouds, and waves, but how does it work with much less familiar natural objects? What if a draftsman was confronted with some natural object so unfamiliar and unusual that any detail or clue could go a long way toward unraveling its mystery and ambiguity? Would not this act of drawing, as a familiarizing process, be so much more acute in its "coming to know"? Wouldn't it be so much less mundane than following a tree's progress, and so much more striking and informative, precisely because of the object's strangeness and unapproachability? One such natural phenomenon was surely the nebulae, examined and extensively sketched by the few who had telescopic access to them.

With the focus on the act of drawing, sketching, and tracing the nebulae, however, I will turn to the astronomical observing books of Lord Rosse's observational program, which was dedicated to the examination of nebulae and star clusters. Delving into Rosse's "investigative pathways" brings out the complex interrelations between the act of drawing, the observation procedure, and the production of scientific knowledge. Using an array of observational record books and the hundreds of preliminary sketches found in them, this chapter will illustrate the mutual effects of material, media, hands, eyes, instruments, and technique on the observer's epistemic comportment toward a wholly unfamiliar target object. But before I get to Rosse's procedures, permit me to say a few words about the process of familiarization.

The Process of Familiarization

As late as 1871, the clergyman, amateur astronomer, and popularizer Thomas William Webb lamented that

[astronomical] observers do not draw equally well; or rather it may be feared that but few draw well at all. It is much to be regretted that a certain amount of artistic skill is not considered absolutely necessary in a liberal education. ... It ought to be remembered, also, that not only a general facility in observation and delineation is requisite, but that something depends upon that special training which results from familiarity with the individual object. Even a careful observer, whose attention had been chiefly turned to objects of another kind, might not recognise as much of planetary markings at first, as after he had studied and learned their character; and on the other hand, a competent artist might produce inaccurate work during his early acquaintance with the telescope, simply from the unfamiliar aspect of what he has to represent, as compared with anything which he has been accustomed to delineate.

Careful astronomical observers and competent artists alike must become familiar with the workings of their instruments and materials and with the individual objects they study, draw, and observe. According to Webb, one way to become familiar with these instruments, materials, and objects is drawing by hand. By drawing the same unfamiliar object over and over, one learns something about the object and also about how to draw it. He made these remarks with regard to observations of the planet Jupiter, which had already been photographed by William Cranch Bond twenty years earlier, but they apply equally, if not more so, to the nebulae.

In becoming familiar with something, one is on the way to becoming acquainted with its nuances, peculiarities, properties, and possible nature. I stress the notion of familiarity here because nascent nebular research at the time ought to be understood with this in mind: nineteenth-century astronomers considered the nebulae to be exceedingly ambiguous, and in the end wholly unfamiliar celestial objects, unlike anything commonly known to have populated the heavens since ancient times. Furthermore, the nebulae were extremely faint, delicate, and barely visible even with the most powerful telescopes available, making these natural objects very difficult to discern visually. Familiarization is a way of coming to terms with what can be made out only over a long time spent with an object.

In the history of science, a customary way to come to terms with the unfamiliar is to connect it to the familiar by analogy or metaphor. While this certainly was attempted with some success in the case of the nebulae, these objects were still much too out of the ordinary. The most compelling method of familiarization still was tracing what one saw over and over. Repetitive drawings of the same object within different levels of an observational procedure, and the inevitable variations in the drawings made, worked as tools in the attempt to broach the unfamiliar. The nebular research project that best illustrates this is Lord Rosse's, involving piles of handmade drawings of the same object, copied and recopied into a series of notebooks. In part, repetition like that found in the Rosse procedures may have helped an inexperienced observer grow familiar with the actions and techniques of observing and drawing. The instructive aspects of this practice might have been especially important to the Rosse project, because it hired several assistants over its long duration, many of them inexperienced as observers.

Webb nicely highlights the instructive component of making preliminary drawings when he explains that "inexperience is a fault that will disappear of itself; and it would be well if the unpracticed observer would be content to expend a little time and trouble in making tentative drawings before he considers them worthy of taking rank as a representation." As Rosse's observational program will exemplify, however, this is not the only worthwhile aspect of repetitive drawing. Indeed, Webb aptly remarks that tentative drawings may also prepare an observer for what he "may fairly expect to see." These may also act as "suggestions—open as freely to contradiction as confirmation." It is in light of such a framework for the role drawing plays in the preliminary observing books that we can come to understand the exploratory, attention-directing, discriminating, and stabilizing activities that the many sketches involved. This is especially true for the observation of the nebulae. All these tentative, preliminary, and preparatory sketches are working images.

Instead of becoming familiar with an object by considering it from various angles (turning it in one's hand or walking around it, for instance), since in drawing the nebulae the line of sight could not be adjusted, the way the object was sketched might be altered, say, from one drawing technique, style, medium, or instrument to another. Sketching the same object over and over was used to see more, see differently, and see better. The observing books of the Rosse project contain entries with statements such as "no use of looking except on a [very] fine night," or "could barely make out details," yet accompanying the same records are drawings of these barely visible objects made on the same night. Familiarization through drawing and tracing helped the observer see more.

There is another aspect of the familiarization process that it is crucial to underscore. Amassing a pile of hand drawings, measurements, descriptions, and notes on an object may not be very useful unless they are arranged or organized in a way conducive to registration, accessibility, and research. I have already referred to the ways an observer or a team of observers internally decided to arrange this collection and gradual accumulation of information as the "procedures of observation," or "procedures" for short. In many cases, procedures are internal to an observational program and are rarely published or made public. But how the process of familiarization is related to an observational procedure is an important question.

Familiarization always begins at the individual level. Each observer might have his own peculiar way of getting to know an unfamiliar object. The procedures are thus meant to level these personal aspects of familiarization by either consolidating or coordinating them with the idiosyncratic processes of other observers within or outside the observational program. At first the Rosse procedure accomplished this with a collective ledger, consolidating many hands, which allowed for an internal but collective familiarization. Another approach later adopted by the Rosse project was to systematically guide and control the observer(s)' hand and thereby promote the consistent and coordinated insertion over time of all kinds of information by any number of observers. An observer's familiarization with an object or a set of objects therefore is managed, made impersonal, and molded by the observational procedures used for particular ends regarding what might be considered significant or relevant to nebular research.

Procedures help the process of familiarization move beyond the personal or private space and into the stabilized public space. The final drawings were engraved, printed, and published to serve as standards so others could grow familiar with them. The published drawings were themselves often compared, traced and copied, transferred, memorized, and actively used as a record and reference point during observations by others both within and outside the program that produced them.


The Performers

As late as the 1840s, no one had succeeded in building another telescope as large as Sir William Herschel's forty-foot one (built in 1785–89), let alone one with a longer focal length and larger specula. Herschel's most reliable and productive telescope, however, was a twenty-foot instrument he first used in 1783. William's son, John Herschel, even used a version of that telescope to view the nebulae from Slough, just outside London, and he used the same twenty-foot telescope later at the Cape of Good Hope. With these instruments, no other observer of the nebulae at the time had the view the Herschels had, effectively giving them a monopoly on their study. And it was said that "Sir William was very chary in allowing people to use his instruments and there is only one record of one having seen through the 40-feet."

Although he had started much earlier, it was only in the late 1830s that William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, finally succeed in casting a speculum three feet in diameter, which in September 1839 was mounted into a reflecting telescope and erected. It was on his wedding anniversary, April 13, 1842, that Rosse successfully cast an even larger speculum, a whole six feet in diameter. The huge metal mirror was uniquely mounted and made ready for use in the last months of 1844 and set to work in March 1845. The six-foot reflector was by far the largest telescope in the world, a feat recognized and celebrated by all the leading astronomers of the day. George Airy, Otto Struve, George Philipps Bond, James South, Charles Piazzi Smyth, William Lassell, General E. Sabine, George Stokes, and William Rowan Hamilton were only just a few of those who made a pilgrimage to Rosse's castle to see these huge telescopes. Erected on the grounds of Birr Castle, Rosse's ancestral home in the small town then known as Parsonstown (now called Birr), King's County, Ireland, the giant reflecting telescope had an aperture six feet in diameter and a focal length of fifty-three feet. Its colossal iron tube (fifty-seven-feet long) was hung between two huge walls of mortar, and it is said that when first-time visitors entered the castle grounds through the park gate they often mistook the walls of the telescope for the castle itself. The two telescopes—three-foot and six-foot—came to be known as the Monsters; the larger was also called the Leviathan of Parsonstown.

The telescopes' primary purpose was not merely to one-up the Herschels (though it sometimes sounds that way) but to be powerful enough for a thorough examination of delicate and extremely faint deep sky objects. When Rosse's telescopes were ready to be used on such "varieties of untried beings," an examination of the nebulae was particularly timely. In relation to the nebular hypothesis, the question of resolvability was certainly at its high point—whether nebulae could in principle be resolved into either tiny or distant stars (as in star clusters). If they were not resolvable this way, the existence of a self-luminous material making up the nebulae seemed the only probable alternative, giving major weight to the Laplacian version of the nebular hypothesis. It was in light of these questions and problems that Rosse initially constructed and erected his giant telescopes, then set out to visually reexamine the nebulae and clusters, making a detailed comparison of Herschel's pictorial representations of the nebulae in his pivotal 1833 catalog.


Excerpted from Observing by Hand by OMAR W. NASIM. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Omar W. Nasim is a lecturer in history at the University of Kent and the author of the award-winning book Bertrand Russell and the Edwardian Philosophers.

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