Mapping the Heavens

in When Physics Became King

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print March 2005 | ISBN: 9780226542010
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226542003 | DOI:
Mapping the Heavens

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This chapter looks at developments in astronomy, the consolidation of observational astronomy, and the importation of laboratory science into the study of the heavens. Astronomy had never really corresponded to its romantic image as a solitary science in which lonely watchers scanned the skies from their watchtowers. By the end of the nineteenth century it corresponded to that image even less. Astronomy was a labor- and time-intensive exercise that demanded the allocation of resources on an impressive scale. Nineteenth-century astronomers fashioned themselves and their science so that they appealed to a broad swathe of constituencies. Astronomy remained an important adjunct of the state. Precision about the stars could deliver precision about political geography as well. The science of the stars could be made to matter for terrestrial politics too. Understanding the history of stellar evolution delivered important messages about the proprieties of contemporary social organization. This turned telescopes into potential weapons of insurrection that merited careful policing. Large parts of astronomy were becoming adjuncts of physics. Men such as William Huggins argued that their work had brought celestial phenomena literally into the physical laboratory and the lecture theater. In this respect, while astronomers continued to provide physicists with important lessons in the management of large-scale institutions, physics by the end of the nineteenth century had become the dominant partner. Physics rather than astronomy is basically the nineteenth-century science.

Keywords: sciences; physics; astronomy; celestial phenomena

Chapter.  13364 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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