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

Case 3: In Relation to Nature

Material Practices

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 describes his day-to-day observations of comets; Perrine's descriptions perhaps 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 effort. 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. 

Construction of Nature

Dr. Campbell's report of the Flint Island expedition assures the reader that camp-life there was "wholly devoid of unpleasantness" and mentions that the party had found time for "a successful turtle hunt on the coral beach, in alternating moonlight and tropical downpour." Mrs Campbell's album from the trip contains multiple photos of the party members happily looking at large turtles strung up on poles or laid out on a tram car, and one particularly striking image of Mrs Campbell sitting atop of a turtle that is tied to a tree.  The climate, topography, and ecology of each location could be either an interesting addendum or a problem to be overcome, but were not of primary interest to the astronomers. These images suggest that, while the astronomers took pleasure in observing the universe and the forces that shape human experience of the world, they saw themselves as dominant over and separate from other animals.

In marked contrast to the astronomers, Norris had a relationship of co-existence with the natural world. He believed that humans were inherently connected to the many animals, plants, ecosystems, and habitats of the planet. In his reflections at the end of the 1977 Natural History Field Quarter, he writes of the importance of "being small and yet a part of the sweep of time, of the mountains, the valleys, the forests, the creosote flats, the welling river dimpled by current." Instead of dominating nature, Norris saw himself as a small part of it. Not only did he practice this act of "being small," but he actively taught it to his students. Norris was an advocate of careful, lengthy observations of the natural world, wherein the naturalist align themself with the pacing of non-human species and ecosystems, or what Norris termed "mountain time." This type of interfacing with nature is apparent in an image of Norris and students observing a group of mushrooms. In this photograph, Norris is laying on the forest ground, while his students crouch beside him. Unlike the image of Mrs Campbell sitting on a turtle, their bodies are carefully positioned at the same level as the mushrooms in order to better observe them. Their hands very lightly touch the tops and sides of the mushrooms. These two photographs thus encapsulate the radically different ways in which the Lick astronomers and Norris interacted with the natural world. 

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