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

Reading Nature, Observing Science

This digital exhibition is the culmination of a year spent processing the archives of the Lick Observatory and the papers of UCSC Environmental Studies Professor, Ken Norris.

The exhibit considers these two collections through the historical construct of the “book of nature”; we are interested in how science has treated nature as a text that can be understood through objective practices of “reading” and which must be carefully reproduced and analyzed through objective modes of graphic representation. In these archives, we witness the genesis of new technologies and methodologies for reading and recording the book of nature. We can see how scientists respond to the capacities and limitations of these new technologies and methodologies for observing and representing the natural world. In the two archives, we also see two very different understandings of the natural world and the place of humans within it.

In addition, these archives help us to account for an alternate historiography of scientific observation, which considers objectivity as a constructed ideal rather than a natural capacity. We are particularly interested in how new technologies and different modes of observation generate new aesthetic ideals and knowledge formations that give shape to practices of scientific observation. As we observe astronomers and naturalists at work in these collections, we can see how objectivity is negotiated by aesthetic considerations and material practices.

Lastly, the focus on material practices allows us to consider the work of these scientists in context: in relationship to changing technologies and ideologies, and in relationship to students, animals, amateur scientists, laborers, diplomats, and craftsmen who all contributed to the knowledge produced.

The Lick Observatory Archives

The Lick Observatory, located on Mount Hamilton 19 miles outside of San Jose, California, was founded in 1888. The observatory was home to the largest refracting telescope at the time, the 36" Great Lick refractor, as well as the one of the first large reflecting telescopes, the 36" Crossley reflector. Lick astronomers also traveled around the world on 17 expeditions between 1889 and 1932 in order to view solar eclipses, transporting with them the 40-foot-long Schaeberle telescope.

These telescopes were developed for photographic use. Astronomers at the Lick were excited about the capacities of the camera for capturing more reliable images of the sky unmediated by human intervention and subjective perception.The Lick's first director, Edward Holden, wrote, "[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." Holden also argued that the archival quality, the "permanence of the records," was superior to other methods of record keeping.

The history of the Lick could be told through a series of technologically and visually impressive photographs. But as these documents and images tell us the story of this technology, we see that it's difficult to tell a straightforward narrative in which astronomical science progresses smoothly and the telescopic camera unequivocally replaces the eye as an improved method for seeing and representing the cosmos.

Accounts like Holden's do not account for a number of factors that impact the objectivity of these images: material conditions, aesthetic considerations, and a vast network of labor intervened in and affected the production of these images. This exhibit provides insight into these dimensions of astrophotographic work at the Lick.

It's important to note that many of the astronomers working at the Lick did not become scientists through education but rather through trade; they often did not have formal education in astronomy or optics. For instance, staff astronomer Edward Barnard, who created many of the Lick's most iconic images and wrote several books on astronomy, did not have a university education in astronomy; his background in photography led him to work in observatories. Like Barnard, many of the staff astronomers at the Lick and abroad were trying to master astronomical knowledge while also trying to keep up with and improve optic and photographic technologies. 

The Kenneth S. Norris Papers 

Kenneth S. Norris (1924-1998) was a renowned conservationist, naturalist, and professor who is well known for his ground-breaking research on dolphins and whales. Norris received his B.A. and M.A. in Zoology from UCLA in 1948 and 1951, where he did research on desert reptiles. Norris's studies then shifted from the desert to the ocean, as he received his Ph.D. in 1959 from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. 

Norris was founding curator at Marineland of the Pacific, where he began his research on dolphin echolocation, and was subsequently a professor of biology and herpetology at UCLA. From 1968-1971, he worked as the research director of the Oceanic Institute in Hawai'i. During these years, Norris divided his time between research and teaching at UCLA and marine mammal research in Hawai'i, and specifically research on the Hawaiian spinner dolphin. Norris eventually left UCLA and the Oceanic Institute and joined the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC as a professor of natural history. During his time at UCSC, Norris helped establish the Joseph M. Long Marine Laboratory and chaired the Environmental Studies Department from 1977 to 1979. He also created the popular Natural History Field Quarter, which he taught until his retirement from UCSC in 1990. 

While Norris's academic research had an extensive breadth, from desert ecology to the study of cetaceans (dolphins and whales), he was quite active in public policy and environmental conservation. He helped draft the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and was a scientific adviser to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. Norris also founded the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS), a system of protected natural sites throughout California that are central resources for environmental research and education to this day. 

The objects displayed in this exhibition reveal the material practices behind Norris's work in natural history, such as his use of field notes, glass slides, photography, journal entries, and audiotapes. Highlighting these material practices shows the ways in which Norris's scientific findings were shaped by various modes and processes of observation. 

This page has paths: