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 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 seventeen expeditions between 1889 and 1932 in order to view solar eclipses, transporting with them the 40-foot-long Schaeberle camera.

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. Accounts like Holden's leave out a large part of the story, not pausing in their celebration of the camera’s objectivity to account for the material limitations within which these images were produced, the aesthetic considerations that shaped them, and the network of labor that went into making them possible. This exhibit provides insight into these dimensions of astrophotographic work at the Lick.

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