Tartu: “the Russian Empire’s leading observatory”

The following is a book review that I did for the Journal for the History of Astronomy. It appeared in the February 2012 issue (£).

Tartu Tähetorn/ Tartu Old Observatory. Lea Leppick (Aasta Taamat OÜ, Tallinn, 2011). Pp. 215. €30. ISBN 978-9949-9018-3-8.

This volume marks the 200th anniversary of the Tartu Observatory. In dual text – Estonian and English – and with many full-page illustrations, it is a handsome and weighty volume that covers the 200-year history of the Observatory in a series of chapters and sub-sections by a number of different authors. The editor, and lead author, Lea Leppick, is an expert on the history of Tartu University, of which the Observatory was a part for much of its history. Leppick declares in the introduction that “This volume has been written by an historian, not an astronomer, as can be seen by the approach to the material”. However, while this may be true of some sections of the book, other contributors have added detail on the “scientific background” (p. 7) and more recent history of the institution, meaning that there is a somewhat disjointed and uneven feel to the whole.

A focus on Tartu Observatory is an opportunity to discuss a number of important themes and events in the history of science, but it is also potentially difficult to write as a celebration and without a strong narrative. One of the difficulties is that while under the directorship of Friedrich Struve, from 1820 to 1839, Tartu could be described as the “Russian Empire’s Leading Observatory” (p. 39), it was afterward essentially a provincial institution that, until the arrival of Ernst Öpik century later, had limited international communication. It had one really admirable instrument, the 1824 Frauhofer refractor, but, for much of its history, little in the way of significant publications. While there is some detail on the various directors, their teaching and writing, it is difficult to get a sense of what those who financed the Observatory really felt it was for and how its role developed over time. While a plethora of projects and related institutions are mentioned, the lack of an analytical overview or even a timeline is sorely felt.

Naturally, the complexity relates to wider historical events. There is a fascinating book to be written on astronomy in Estonia, reflecting successive periods of war, revolution and peace under Sweden, Imperial Russia, German occupation, the USSR and independence. Several tantalising but undeveloped leads arise. While Struve’s measurement of a meridian arc had clear importance for national prestige and political and military control, attracting support and interest from the Russian imperial government and military, it is claimed here as “purely scientific” (p. 43). Likewise, support of “basic research” (p. 111) is taken as a given but deserves greater scrutiny. The interest of several directors in popular science writing is mentioned, but the content and aims of their work deserve more attention. It is fascinating to learn about the role of textbooks, popularisations and museum displays in, for example, the creation of Estonian scientific terminology after 1919, or in response to the Soviet emphasis on astronomy in the 1950s, but more of this, and an accompanying reflexivity in the discussion of the Tartu’s latest incarnation as a science centre and museum, would have been welcomed.

The strength of the book is the many images included, not only of buildings and directors, but contemporary publications, manuscripts, plans, instruments and photographs from a range of sources. However, parts of the text are shaped around these images, making the book more like an exhibition than a history. It is made up of a series of short sections, which sometimes take the reader some distance from the story of the observatory and involve leaps in chronology and a lack of coherence. It is sometimes unclear who the book is aimed at: the level of detail in some sections, whether scientific or institutional, often seems too dense, indeed condensed, for a non-specialist to penetrate, and yet the treatment of each topic is too brief to satisfy academics. Toward the end, when the text is peppered with “we”, “us” and “our”, there is a sense that this is a book produced by and for those associated with the Observatory and university.

There are, unfortunately, a number of errors in the text. Some are translation issues, for example, “passage instrument” appearing for “transit instrument” and “mirror telescope” for “reflecting telescope”, but others are more basic. It is claimed that Uranus “was found in the exact location predicted”, as “a brilliant proof of … theory” (p. 24), or that time zones were initiated at the 1884 Meridian Conference (p. 117). Nevertheless, the book does usefully bring the history of Tartu Observatory, and aspects of Estonian university education and science, to English-speaking audiences, making use of source material in Estonian, Russian and German. The 2005 inscription of the Struve Geodetic Arc as a World Heritage site and the 2011 opening of a museum in the restored Observatory are indicative of ambitions for international recognition and, we hope, the start of yet another chapter of this 200-year-old institution.

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