The active observatory

The following was written for the new Science Studies section of the website Dissertation Reviews, and can also be read there. The reviewers are encouraged to give a general outline of the content of the thesis under review and to briefly consider it in the context of relevant literature and its possible historiographical impact. Critical analysis is largely left to a separate document, forwarded privately to the author of the thesis. I was very pleased to be asked to do it: a site which lets researchers know what recent PhDs have been up to is a great idea – and it’s always good to have a deadline to ensure that you do read something you should be reading!

Alistair Marcus Kwan, Architectures of astronomical observation: from Sternwarte Kassel (circa 1560) to the Radcliffe Observatory (1772), Yale University, 2010.

Given the scientific and symbolic importance of astronomical observatories, it is surprising that they have received relatively little analysis. There are accounts of individual observatories, the astronomers who worked in them and the instruments they used, but much less has been said about observatories as type of building. Still less has the relationship between buildings, instruments and people been given sustained consideration, which seems the more surprising given the ‘spatial turn’ in history of science over the last decade and more. By doing this, Alistair Kwan adds to such works as Marion Donnelly, Short History of Observatories (Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Press, 1973) and Agustín Udías Vallina,Searching the Heavens and the Earth (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003). He does this not by challenging them on which observatories are significant or indicating a theory of their development, but by focusing on their physicality and the business of working with instruments within and around them.

Kwan aims to showing how observatories ‘actively contributed to observations’ by either failing or succeeding in ‘accommodating, supporting and sheltering observers and instruments’ (p. i). He includes insights from architectural history, especially the study of spatial functioning, and archaeology. Making careful use of contemporary accounts, engravings and plans, Kwan successfully highlights the physical experience of astronomers using particular instruments, for defined purposes and in often uncomfortable conditions. We gain a lively sense of the astronomer at work: carefully stepping around large instruments in confined spaces, reviving chilled fingers in a warming room, resting in a nearby bed when clouds covered the sky, or taking up undignified postures to access the eyepiece. Observatory buildings might exacerbate or ease physical conditions and contribute to the success or failure of observations. Likewise, observatories can be designed in order to pursue particular objectives, or these might be defined by the difficulties or opportunities presented by the building.

Moving chronologically from the mid-sixteenth century to the later eighteenth, Kwan analyses a small number of well-known institutions. Throughout this period, although astronomers learned by personal experience or written accounts, there was limited precedent or contemporary theory in observatory building. New instruments and objectives, each site and building, presented new challenges. The observatories considered include buildings that were, for a variety of purposes and with vastly differing budgets, built, adapted, or partially adapted, for astronomical work.

Chapter 1 considers what has been described as Europe’s first permanent observatory, that of Wilhelm IV, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Given that neither the building nor any detailed drawings or descriptions of the observatory survive, Kwan effectively reconstructs it from extant instruments, an inventory, recorded observations and typical practices. While not the easiest example to commence an advocacy for the primacy of studying buildings, this observatory creates a useful contrast to those built by Tycho Brahe, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg. These, considered in the following three chapters, are atypical of Renaissance astronomy, although famous and influential. Wilhelm’s minimal architectural adaptations were far more typical than Tycho’s creation of entirely new, purpose-built structures.

Detailed consideration of the well-documented Uraniborg and Stjerneborg allows Kwan to pursue a number of important themes, for example the relationship between instrument design and space, or the tension between practical function and symbolic meaning in architecture. Uraniborg’s design was, Kwan persuasively argues, dictated not only by its intended uses but also occult Neoplatonism. Here Kwan argues against claims of Palladian or Vitruvian influence, for example from John Robert Christianson (‘Tycho Brahe in Scandinavian Scholarship’, History of Science 36 (1998) pp. 467–484, p. 469) and Victor E. Thoren (Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 106-108). While full of astrological meaning, the design did not turn out to be ideal for astrometry. Tycho was fortunate to have the resources to try again. His Stjerneborg mounted precision instruments below ground-level for maximum stability: they and their use dictated the structure that contained them.

The following three chapters largely consider the adaptation of existing buildings to specific purposes: housing camera obscura for solar observation, long refracting telescopes for qualitative observation and zenith sectors for attempting measurements of stellar parallax. Here we test the meaning of the term ‘observatory’, for Kwan focus largely on the design and housing of particular instruments, some of which were used on a handful of occasions, others not at all. Nevertheless, important ground is covered about their use and the possibilities or constraints of architectural structures. While many of these instances have been described elsewhere, it is useful to compare and contrast such episodes and to highlight the significance of spatial requirements or where available spaces directly affected what observations could be made.

Chapter 8 considers the building, use and adjustment of three major observatories, at Paris, Greenwich and Oxford. The first two, as national institutions, were new ventures and, while funding and requirements differed, in both cases there were trade-offs between functionality and appearance. While they are described as ‘fraught by misjudgement and disagreement from the outset’, the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford is presented as a largely successful building. By this date the key instruments and their requirements were better known, making planning for their accommodation significantly easier. Naturally, however, appearances continued to matter, for observatories must also represent patrons and the worth of astronomy.

Kwan concludes that by the 1770s, ‘decades of trial and error had finally shown what the spatial needs [of astronomy] actually were’ (p. 196). He does not, of course, go on to the following century, when new technologies and techniques required architectural redesign and adaptation. Kwan’s work will, necessarily, inform any historian who goes on to consider these later ventures. Likewise, his demonstration that ‘Observatories stand among astronomy’s most influential protagonists’ (p. 199) must be taken on board by historians of astronomical instruments and observational astronomy. As well as giving us a very clear sense of the bodily work involved in making knowledge, Kwan’s work foregrounds architectural spaces as things to be both overcome and utilised when measuring celestial coordinates, observing heavenly bodies and testing the predictions of astronomical theory.

[Update: There’s evidently lots of interest in this dissertation! For those of you with access to ProQuest, you can get more information and purchase a copy online, or download it free if you have a subscription.]

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5 thoughts on “The active observatory

    • Hi Phillip – there are RSS feed buttons for both comments and posts at the bottom of the side bar on the right. Perhaps I should place them somewhere more prominent? Thanks for the interest!

  1. OK, found them, thanks. When one is interested in a blog, the first thing one looks for are RSS feeds. Since the layout varies from blog to blog, it sometimes takes a while to find them.

    At my suggestion, Renaissance Mathematicus put up some RSS feeds today. Now I have even more reading to do!

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