Reading Nature, Observing Science: Examining Material Practices in the Lick Observatory Archives and Kenneth S. Norris Papers

Connections: Materials of Observation

Astronomers kept individual copybooks and scrapbooks in which they used sketches, illustrations, and visually descriptive language alongside numeric charts to record their observations. Charles Perrine's copybook here describes his day-to-day observations of the apparent size of a comet; Perrine's descriptions speak to the way in which it is difficult to describe something like light in purely objective terms, untouched by the discourse of aesthetics. In this set of charts from Edward Holden's scrapbook, Holden uses different shades of blue pen to represent the distribution of stars in the southern sky; the careful uniformity of these markings speaks to an aesthetic way of interfacing with the cosmos. The scrapbook also contains some illustrations of Jupiter, though Holden discounts them as having "no artistic merit." In what ways does the history of astronomical discovery at the Lick, often represented as a series of technologically impressive and visually impressive photographs produced by automated telescopes, omit the modes of observation and material practices archived here?

Material practices of observation were also central to Norris's work in natural history. He was a prolific note taker and filled numerous bound books with field notes, journal entries, and species accounts. Norris used the practice of note taking to document thoughts, sketches, and diagrams of the various animal species he encountered, ranging from dolphins and whales to lizards and snakes. He also took notes to record and reflect on his many experiences in the natural world. Norris's bound field notes from 1954-1960 speak to the wide range of his note taking practice, as the book is a textual collage of typed and handwritten journal entries, field notes, and species catalogues on various paper sizes.

Situating the Lick Observatory archives and the Ken Norris papers alongside each other reveals the ways in which science is immersed in particular material practices that ultimately inform scientific findings. Both archives revolve around embodied practices of note taking, illustrating, sketching, and charting in different formats. Calling attention to such embodied practices highlights the process behind the production of scientific knowledge, a process that is often occluded in histories of science. 


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