The Heavens on Earth

Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture

The Heavens on Earth

Science and Cultural Theory

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Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 62 illustrations Published: January 2010

History > European History, World History, Science and Technology Studies

The Heavens on Earth explores the place of the observatory in nineteenth-century science and culture. Astronomy was a core pursuit for observatories, but usually not the only one. It belonged to a larger group of “observatory sciences” that also included geodesy, meteorology, geomagnetism, and even parts of physics and statistics. These pursuits coexisted in the nineteenth-century observatory; this collection surveys them as a coherent whole. Broadening the focus beyond the solitary astronomer at his telescope, it illuminates the observatory’s importance to technological, military, political, and colonial undertakings, as well as in advancing and popularizing the mathematical, physical, and cosmological sciences.

The contributors examine “observatory techniques” developed and used not only in connection with observatories but also by instrument makers in their workshops, navy officers on ships, civil engineers in the field, and many others. These techniques included the 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 representations 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. The state observatory occupied a particularly privileged place in the life of the city. With their imposing architecture and ancient traditions, state observatories served representative purposes for their patrons, whether as symbols of a monarch’s enlightened power, a nation’s industrial and scientific excellence, or republican progressive values. Focusing on observatory techniques in settings from Berlin, London, Paris, and Rome to Australia, Russia, Thailand, and the United States, The Heavens on Earth is a major contribution to the history of science.

Contributors: David Aubin, Charlotte Bigg, Guy Boistel, Theresa Levitt, Massimo Mazzotti, Ole Molvig, Simon Schaffer, Martina Schiavon , H. Otto Sibum, Richard Staley, John Tresch, Simon Werrett, Sven Widmalm


The Heavens on Earth achieves its goals and is very informative. . . . [O]ne can find much of use in this well-integrated and impressive set of essays.” — David Cahan, Isis

The Heavens on Earth demonstrates in a fruitful way the observatory’s importance to 19th-century history, of both science and culture. A worthy addition to the literature of the history of science, the collection will inspire further mapping of the links between astronomy and other parts of society.” — Gustav Holmberg, Science

“Having worked at an observatory for the better part of a quarter century, and seen the technical and social networks in action (and maybe even the imperial), this volume not only rings true, but is insightful, intriguing, and eye-opening all at once. Edited volumes seldom rise to the level of landmark status. For the field of the history of astronomical institutions, this one does.” — Steven Dick, Metascience

“The book blends the important astronomical questions of the day with the practical uses (e.g., French navy), the philosophical ideas that affected research practices, and how astronomy was used to build nations. . . . [T]his readable, scholarly work with copious footnotes and well-selected illustrations offers a fascinating look at the relation between science and society.” — M.-K. Hemenway, Choice

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

“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

“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

“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

“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 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


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

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

1. The Astronomical Capital of the World: Pulkovo Observatory in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I / 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 Technologies / John Tresch 253

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

11. Staging the Heavens: Astrophysics and Popular Astronomy in the Late Nineteenth Century / Charlotte Bigg 305

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

Bibliography 345

About the Contributors 367

Index 369

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4640-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4628-9
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