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

The Lick Observatory: Imaging the Cosmos

The nineteenth century was a period of increasing effort to clear scientific observation of the subjective turns of the human mind and the physical shortcomings of the human eye. The Lick astronomers were excited about the capacities of the telescopic camera for capturing more reliable images of the sky unmediated by human error and judgement.

Researcher Alex Pang cites Lick's first director, Edward Holden, as writing, "[The camera] does not tire, as the eye does, and refuse to pay attention for more than a small fraction of a second, but it will faithfully record every ray of light that falls upon it even for hours." He also argued that the archival quality, the "permanence of the records," was superior to that of any other method of visualization. According to Pang, accounts like Holden's leave out a large part of the story, not pausing in their evaluation of progress to recount the material world in which these images were produced and the aesthetic considerations that shaped them. [See Pang's article, "Technology, Aesthetics, and the Development of Astrophotography at the Lick Observatory," in Inscribing Science: Scientific Texts and the Materialities of Communications, 1998.]

The images here speak to the material limitations of the telescopic camera and the technologies used for making and reproducing images, asking whether the glass plate can truly capture "every ray of light that falls" upon the telescopic camera. These images speak to the way in which what is considered objective must be negotiated with technological materiality; but they also speak to the way in which objectivity and reality are mediated by aesthetics. These images were produced in a period when astronomers were just beginning to uncover the realities of the cosmos--for instance, they did not yet know the difference between nebulae and galaxies, nor did they understand the size of the Milky Way in relation to the universe. In this collection of documents, we see astronomers constructing the reality of what the cosmos "looks like," often speaking of the images they produce in terms of aesthetic expectations and preferences as to how the sky should be represented to the public. We can perhaps even see how affective reactions to celestial objects, like awe or the feeling of sublimity [link], condition even the most "objective" efforts at observation and representation.

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