various astronomy-related historical images

Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop - ND XVirtual June 8-10, 2022


Online Session #1 - Wednesday June 8

“Extending the Observatory’s Reach: How Astronomers at Greenwich Communicated with Different Audiences”

Session abstract: To the casual visitor approaching the Royal Observatory during the late nineteenth century, the site and its occupants would have seemed remote and out of reach, hidden behind a protective ring of closed doors and high walls. But while the astronomers were physically out of sight, their presence was made apparent through various means of written and spoken communication, from magazine articles and popular science books through to public lectures and lantern shows. In this session, our speakers will explore both the personal and institutional motivations that underpinned these outputs, along with the complex web of conditions and constraints that shaped this work. We will also extend our investigation to consider how communication between Greenwich astronomers and their European counterparts during the First World War sustained the ideal of scientific internationalism, despite the challenging circumstances.

“From Alms to Almanacs: The Astronomical Writing Practices of James Glaisher, Edwin Dunkin, and William Ellis”
Daniel Belteki, Royal Museums Greenwich
The members of staff at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich during the nineteenth century often engaged in writing articles for periodicals, contributed pieces to almanacs, and even wrote their own books. Many of them frequently gave talks at the meetings of national and local scientific and natural history societies. What motivated these individuals to engage in writing activities? Were they ordered to write these pieces? Did they take on such jobs to implement their salaries? Or did they write these pieces simply because they were passionate about communicating astronomical matters to others? The paper investigates how such writing activities fit within the rigorous rules of the Observatory set up by its seventh director and Astronomer Royal, George Biddell Airy. The paper follows and compares how three members of his Observatory staff - James Glaisher, Edwin Dunkin, and William Ellis - delved into the practice of communicating astronomy and observatory sciences. The paper demonstrates that writing about astronomy was one of the only ways to gain additional income within the strict regulations of the Observatory.

“Astronomical Communications in Time of War: Greenwich Observatory and International Astronomy, 1914–1918”
Lee Macdonald, Royal Museums Greenwich
When the First World War began in 1914, communications between Britain’s Royal Observatory at Greenwich and observatories on the German side of the conflict were cut off – literally, in the case of the ‘Centralstelle’ at Kiel, which had been an international clearing house for telegrams announcing astronomical discoveries. During the war, initial expressions by scientists in Allied countries of solidarity with their colleagues behind enemy lines soon gave way to policies that excluded German and Austrian scientists. As Astronomer Royal, the Royal Observatory’s director Frank Dyson reported to the British Admiralty and so was constrained as to what he could say in public. In this paper, I use two series of Dyson’s correspondence to show how Dyson strove to keep international communications in astronomy going during the war and that he remained committed to a scientific internationalism that did not necessarily exclude Germany in the long term. First, I examine Dyson’s relations with the ‘Centralstelle’ after it was moved from Kiel to neutral Copenhagen in 1914. Then, I show how correspondence between Dyson and Willem de Sitter of Leiden Observatory illustrates both astronomers’ private views on international science in the light of the war and additionally gives some insight into the origins of the 1919 solar eclipse expedition to test Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“‘Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens’: The Evangelical Popular Astronomy of Walter and Annie Maunder, 1890–1940”
Louise Devoy, Royal Museums Greenwich
Walter and Annie Maunder (née Scott Dill Russell) worked at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, during the late 19th century and are chiefly remembered for their contribution to the observation and analysis of changing patterns in sunspot activity. They also became well-known within the public sphere for their numerous magazine articles, popular books and pivotal involvement with the creation and early years of the British Astronomical Association. But a brief survey of their work reveals that communicating astronomy was not just a case of sharing their work but also served as a way of sharing their Christian beliefs. With similar backgrounds from devout Presbyterian and Wesleyan families, Walter and Annie blurred the lines between their work and faith with publications such as The Heavens and their Story (1908) and an article on dating the Slavonic Book of Enoch. They also commenced their public lectures with celebratory quotes from the Bible and undertook original research on the origins of the constellations and planetary symbols within Babylonian and Egyptian cultures. While these later studies were not explicitly Christian, they were clearly based on the Maunders’ fascination with the history of astronomy and ancient belief systems. Communicating astronomy thus became part of their personal evangelism and adulation for the wonders of creation.

Online Session #2 - Thursday June 9

“Communicating Astronomy in the Twentieth Century, Case Studies”

“Amateurs Communicating Astronomy Through Data and Images : The ‘Hubble’s Hidden Treasures’ Contest, A Case Study”
Maxime Harvey, University of Québec
With the “Hubble’s Hidden Treasures” contest, the European Space Agency invited the public to dig the Hubble Space Telescope’s archive, play with its data and compete for prizes. This paper will contextualize the contest in the history of the communication of pretty pictures made from Hubble’s data. Its goal is to describe how practices of representation of Outer Space, social exchanges between different actors and the ways these images were experienced were developed and linked one to the other. To figure out how the engagement of amateur astronomers was reimagined through this process, we will address three questions: how did the involvement of amateurs changed the representation of Outer Space with pretty pictures; how did knowledge about Outer Space and know-how to make these images come to be shared among the actors involved; how were these images differently experienced through that history? The paper will present a critical review of the contest by looking at both the institutional design of the contest and, through online observations and interviews, the traces of amateurs’ participation and practices. Gillian Rose’s critical visual methodology and Lisa Cartwright”s materialist approach to visual science studies influenced us to consider the representation of objects in images, the social conditions and effects of image production, circulation and consumption, and above all, the personal ways of looking at images. With this approach, this paper aims to contribute to social studies of Outer Space and the historical understanding of scientific practices of representation.

*A first version of this paper was presented for discussion at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) in Toronto, 2021. It is in the process of being written for a proposal for a special issue of Engaging Science, Technology, and Society (ESTS) on critical studies of Outer Space, next year.

“Astronomical Laboratories and the Global Networks of Dutch Astrophotography”
Chaokang Tai, University of Regensburg
Astronomy in the Netherlands thrived throughout the twentieth century, despite the conditions in this low-lying, humid, and densely populated country being far from ideal for astronomical observation. This success was closely tied to the Dutch astronomers’ early embrace of photographic methods and the global networks they forged for this purpose. The astronomical laboratories in Groningen and Amsterdam did not have telescopes of their own, instead relying on the import of photographic plates taken at foreign observatories. Even Leiden Observatory, which did have a photographic refractor, formed a long-lasting collaboration with Union Observatory in Johannesburg to obtain photographic plates of the southern hemisphere. Such international collaborations, however, were complicated by the constraints of long-distance communication by mail, which caused delays and made quick adjustments to photographic projects impossible. In my paper, I will explore how the Dutch institutions formed and maintained their international collaborations, how the constraints of having to observe at a distance impacted the photographic research, and how the astronomers attempted to work around these problems.

“Knowledge Organization through Communication: The Case of Research on Multiple and Interacting Galaxies (1925–1980)”
Karin Pelte, Technical University Berlin
For the longest time research on multiple and interacting galaxies (MIG) was highly individualistic, largely uncoordinated and limited to a small and changing group of astronomers scattered across the globe. In light of their greatly diverging research objectives, central MIG concepts – such as double, multiple and interacting galaxies – got configured by way of analogy to very different (astro)physical, cosmogonical and cosmological theories and notions. Subsequent astronomers in turn, rearranged these initial conceptual configurations adapting them to new research contexts and objectives. Central locale and medium for this continuous process of reconfiguring was the published scientific communication which circulated across borders and epochs. Citation patterns within this communication allow to reconstruct how knowledge relevant to MIG research got (re)organized over time at the collective level. In my talk I juxtapose both citation network analysis and individual case studies in terms of how knowledge got organized and concepts reinvented.

Online Session #3 - Friday June 10

“ET Life, UFOs, and the Boundaries Between Theology and Science in the Modern Era”

Session abstract: From the era of William Whewell (1794-1866) to that of Richard Dawkins (1941-), the question of extraterrestrial life and the mystery of UFOs have long fascinated the general public in Britain and America. Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb's recent New York Times bestseller Extraterrestrial and his Galileo Project, which proposes to study unidentified aerial phenomena as it searches for biological and technical signatures of extraterrestrial life, testifies to the continued popularity of these topics and their association with astronomy amongst the wider public. These subjects have also had a tendency to raise questions about the nature of science and the boundaries of scientific knowledge. And, just as Loeb found it crucial to draw particular boundaries between secular scientific endeavor and religious speculation in his book length appeal for public support, his forerunners wrestled with these same boundaries. This panel will explore the ways in which different authors writing about the subjects of ET life and UFOs have adopted different communication strategies in relation to their audiences, whether those be their scientific peers or the general public, and, as a result, have drawn different lines of demarcation between theology, myth, and science over time, whether implicitly or explicitly. The three papers in this panel will demonstrate the ways in which these subjects have continued to raise questions of a theological and mythic nature posing challenges to the definition of science even into the modern era.

“William Whewell, Habitable Zones, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life before the Age of the Flying Saucer Myth”
Michael Crowe, University of Notre Dame
This paper will argue that William Whewell (a University of Cambridge philosopher of science and an Anglican sympathetic to Evangelicalism) was not only a key contributor to the development of the concept of a temperate/habitable zone, but that this concept has served as the critical one in contemporary astrobiology, not just for those who argue against the probability of finding extraterrestrial intelligence in the twentieth century (like the astronomer/astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez and other Intelligent Design theorists connected to Evangelicalism), but also for those who search for extraterrestrial intelligence through signals and exoplanets (SETI, etc.). This paper will also suggest that while Whewell felt a tension between revealed and natural religion that prompted him to rethink the probability of extraterrestrial intelligence in the solar system, he treated the question of extraterrestrial intelligence as one to be decided on scientific rather theological grounds.

“Evangelical Christian Speculation about UFOs in the Age of the Flying Saucer Myth”
Todd M. Thompson, Biola University
In the decades following Kenneth Arnold's famous sighting of saucer-like objects on a plane trip through Washington, the majority of Evangelicals Christians in America generally ignored speculation about the origin and intent of these objects. However, some Evangelicals sought to solve the mystery. This paper will explore two consequential and divergent approaches to the UFO mystery within American Evangelical culture. While John Weldon, a student of the famous Christian apologist Hal Lindsey, used Lindsey’s theology with Lindsey’s blessing to develop a Christian explanation of the UFO phenomenon as a manifestation of demonic influence and a sign of the end times, Richard F. Haines, an experimental psychologist employed by NASA, sought to take a more scientific approach to the subject seeking to demonstrate the reality of UFOs without committing any one hypothesis regarding their origin and intention. Weldon and Haines also communicated their findings to different publics in different ways. While Weldon, following Lindsey's example, sought a general audience, publishing his conclusions with Ballantine Books, a popular secular publisher of fantasy and science fiction, Haines sought to reach a more specialized audience utilizing more traditional publishing outlets associated with the credentialed scientific community. Despite their different approaches to research and publication, both Weldon and Haines shared the conviction that UFOs were real and had important implications for human views of religion and the cosmos.

“The Extraterrestrial Enlightenment Myth in the Twentieth Century and Beyondrdquo;
Michael Keas, Biola University
Richard Dawkins (Professor for Public Understanding of Science in the University of Oxford from 1995 to 2008) believes in aliens who have advanced to “the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006). Dawkins is not alone in this belief in a naturalistic deity, an idea which has appeared in peer-reviewed scholarly journals and popular science writing. This paper calls this idea the “extraterrestrial enlightenment myth” (myth being used here in an anthropological sense connoting a worldview-shaping narrative that awakens the imagination to interpret the world in a manner that is spiritual, but not traditionally religious). This paper will explore the historical development of the extraterrestrial enlightenment myth and its major flaws in light of recent scientific and philosophical developments.

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