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.

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