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On the boredom of science: positional astronomy in the nineteenth century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 November 2013

Department of the Humanities, Alvernia University, 232 Francis Hall, 400 St Bernardine St, Reading, PA, 19607, USA. Email:


To those not engaged in the practice of scientific research, or telling the story of this enterprise, the image of empirical observation may conjure up images of boredom more than anything else. Yet surprisingly, the profoundly uninteresting nature of research to many science workers and readers in history has received little attention. This paper seeks to examine one moment of encroaching boredom: nineteenth-century positional astronomy as practised at leading observatories. Though possibly a coincidence, this new form of astronomical observation arose only a few decades before the English term ‘boredom’, for which the Oxford English Dictionary has no record prior to 1850. Through examining forms of observatory labour and publications, I offer in this paper an example of how boring work and reading helped shape a scientific discipline.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2013 

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1 Walter Raleigh, Style, London: Edward Arnold, 1897, p. 59.

2 The Simpsons, episode 2F11, original airdate 5 February 1995.

3 On the difficulty of engaging students see Hilton, Margaret L., Singer, Susan R. and Schweingruber, Heidi A. (eds.), America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005, p. xiiGoogle Scholar. On general boredom in the classroom see Tranter, John, ‘Biology: dull, lifeless, and boring?’, Journal of Biological Education (2004) 38, pp. 104105Google Scholar.

4 Press release, ‘Public praises science; scientists fault public, media’, Pew Research Center, 9 July 2009, available at, accessed 9 July 2012.

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6 In the same episode, Bart's participation in the scientific enterprise is even seen as punishment. The task was imposed because Bart had foiled Skinner's earlier attempt to float a weather balloon. In Skinner's words, ‘Because you have impeded science, you must now aid science.’

7 This is not to confuse boredom with the merely mundane. Latour and Galison have argued persuasively for the role of quotidian practice in resolving scientific problems in Galison, Peter, How Experiments End, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987Google Scholar; Latour, Bruno, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979Google Scholar. Such works builds on Kuhn's understanding of ‘normal science’ in Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962Google Scholar.

8 Most recently in the ‘Focus’ section of Isis (2009) 100(2). In particular see Andreas W. Daum, ‘Varieties of popular science and the transformations of public knowledge: some historical reflections’, pp. 319–332; Ralph O'Connor, ‘Reflections on popular science in Britain: genres, categories, and historians’, pp. 333–345; Katherine Pandora, ‘Popular science in national and transnational perspective: suggestions from the American context’, pp. 346–358; and Jonathan R. Topham, ‘Introduction’, pp. 310–318.

9 The phenomenon has recently been examined in Porter, Theodore M., ‘How science became technical’, Isis (2009) 100, pp. 292309Google Scholar.

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11 Notably, the most extensive examination of boredom in science has come from the field of anthropology. The most sustained examination of the topic I have found is located in a PhD thesis by María Alejandra Sánchez-Vázquez, ‘Scientific indifference: understanding science in a Mexican planetarium’, University of Manchester, 2004, Th25022, pp. 91–114. The dissertation can be found at, accessed 9 July 2012. In reference to another aspect of nineteenth-century astronomy, it has been suggested that ‘[p]ainstaking (and often boring) experimentation, observation, and data gathering are … important components of science’. Burke, John G., Cosmic Debris: Meteorites in History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, p. 3Google Scholar.

12 Nineteenth-century commentators had many names for these activities, including positional, computational, observational or pure astronomy, but all referred to the practice of creating accurate ephemerides.

13 It should not be assumed that the new observing technologies forced changes in observing techniques. Rather the activities, organization and material means of observing all underwent significant changes together. On this development in the broader field of observation see Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990, pp. 59Google Scholar.

14 A nice summary of this development can be found in Smith, Robert W., ‘Remaking astronomy: instruments and practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, in Jo Nye, Mary (ed.), Cambridge History of Science, vol. 5: The Modern Physical and Mathematical Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 154173, 154–156Google Scholar. See also Williams, Mari, ‘Beyond the planets: early nineteenth-century studies of double stars’, BJHS (1984) 17, pp. 295300Google Scholar; Sheynin, O.B., ‘On the history of the statistical method in astronomy’, Archive for the History of the Exact Sciences (1984) 29, pp. 151199Google Scholar.

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20 Beckett, Samuel, Proust, New York: Grove Press, 1970, p. 16Google Scholar. Originally published as Beckett, Samuel, Proust, New York: Chatto and Windus, 1931Google Scholar. He may have been referencing Schopenhauer, who wrote that ‘life swings back and forth like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom’. Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation (trPayne, . E.F.J.), vol. 1, New York: Dover Publications, 1969, p. 312Google Scholar.

21 Healy, op. cit. (17), p. 110.

22 The most notable moment being the placement of Neptune among the planets of the solar system in 1845. Interestingly, the ‘failure’ of Airy to properly attain credit for England was in part due to the fact that the observer who first identified the possible source of Uranus's perturbations, John Coach Adams, fell outside Airy's typical hierarchy of labour. For a work that summarizes and challenges the traditional account of the Neptune controversy see Smith, Robert W., ‘The Cambridge network in action: the discovery of Neptune’, Isis (1989) 80, pp. 395422Google Scholar. For an interesting account that privileges Adams's personality over the ‘ineptitude’ of Airy and James Challis see Sheehan, William and Thurber, Steven, ‘John Couch Adams's Asperger Syndrome and the British non-discovery of Neptune’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2007) 61, pp. 285299Google Scholar.

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37 For ways in which the ‘personal equation’ has been a means both to discipline observers and to control physical bodies see Canales, Jimena, ‘Exit the frog, enter the human: physiology and experimental psychology in nineteenth-century astronomy’, BJHS (2001) 34, pp. 173197Google Scholar; and Schaffer, op. cit. (32). Rarely discussed in either paper, however, has been what the experience of determining the equation was like for the observers themselves.

38 Duncombe, Raynor L., ‘Personal equation in astronomy’, Popular Astronomy (1945) 53, pp. 213Google Scholar, 3.

39 Quetelet, op. cit. (34), p. 253.

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42 Newcomb, op. cit. (16), pp. 129, 63, 97, 104–105, 102, 110.

43 Though influential in England, Bessel's Königsberg Observatory was something of an anomaly during the first half of the nineteenth century in Germany, where most observatories had few, if any, assistants. For a revisionist account of how Bessel's work ‘destroyed the older conceptions of the astronomical observer as the skillful master of an art’ and both anticipated and broke from English practices of creating observers see Hoffman, Cristoph, ‘Constant differences: Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, the concept of the observer in early nineteenth-century practical astronomy and the history of personal equation’, BJHS (2007) 40, pp. 333365, 348Google Scholar. For a guided tour of nineteenth-century German observatories see Quetelet, Adolphe, Notes extraits d'un voyage scientifique fait en Allemagne pendant l’été de 1829, Brussels: Hayes, 1830Google Scholar.

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47 From a letter from Charles Biddell Airy to Charles Wood, 22 March 1847. Quoted in Chapman, Allan, The Victorian Amateur Astronomer: Independent Astronomical Research in Britain, 1820–1920, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1998, p. 34Google Scholar.

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62 Newcomb, op. cit. (16), p. 312.

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64 Forbes, op. cit. (24), p. 316. Forbes may have been happy to know that a recent history of Pulkovo found that the director, Otto Struve, was fond of equating ‘more lowly personnel with machines’. Simon Werrett, ‘The astronomical capital of the world: Pulkovo Observatory in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas I’, in Bigg, Aubin and Sibum, op. cit. (26) pp. 33–57, 48.

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74 Bennett, op. cit. (33), p. 1, has also argued that during this period observations became the ‘sine qua non of an astronomical observatory’ even when the data was ‘unpublished’ and ‘unreduced’.

75 Mitchel, O.M., The Planetary and Stellar Worlds: A Popular Exposition of the Great Discoveries and Theories of Modern Astronomy, New York: Baker & Scribner, 1848, p. vGoogle Scholar.

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77 Ewing, op. cit. (69), p. v. The comparison to accounting was apt, as the new form of astronomy had many similarities to the world of business. See Ashworth, William J., ‘The calculating eye: Baily, Herschel, Babbage and the business of astronomy’, BJHS (1994) 27, pp. 409441CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 Airy, George Biddell, Gravitation: An Elementary Explanation of the Principal Perturbations in the Solar System, 2nd edn, London: Macmillan, 1884, p. ivGoogle Scholar.

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86 Arago, op. cit. (85), p. iv.

87 It has been suggested that the varying success of Arago's lectures was deeply embedded in French society and politics, though the objections of his colleagues suggest that public inexperience with numbers contributed to their end as well. Theresa Levitt, ‘“I thought this might be of interest …”: the observatory of public enterprise’, in Bigg, Aubin and Sibum, op. cit. (26), pp. 285–304, 302.

88 Arago, op. cit. (85), p. xii.

89 This is not to say that popularizing astronomy could not be done by the professionals. The Berlin Urania was a massive success in attracting attention to the astronomical wonders, but this was a different kind of participation than what Ewing and Arago had called for. Ole Molvig, ‘The Berlin Urania, Humboltian cosmology, and the public’, in Bigg, Aubin and Sibum, op. cit. (26), pp. 326–344.

90 The Observatory (1898) 21, p. 468.

91 The Observatory (1896) 19, p. 69.

92 The Observatory (1895) 18, p. 377, original emphasis.

93 Forbes, op. cit. (24), p. 348.

94 The Observatory (1895) 18, p. 177.

95 Forbes, op. cit. (24), pp. 345–346.

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103 For Herschel's complicated relationship with positional astronomy see Bennett, op. cit. (33), pp. 1–2.

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106 Bensaude-Vincent, op. cit. (79), p. 87.

107 Flammarion's dismissal took place against the backdrop of a significant change in the role of astronomer at the Paris Observatory. See Aubin, op. cit. (31).

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110 Woodhouse, op. cit. (109), p. xiv.

111 Proctor, op. cit. (98).

112 Arago, op. cit. (85), p. 1.

113 Biot, J.B., Traité élémentaire d'astronomie physique, 2nd edn, Paris: Klostermann, 1810, p. ixGoogle Scholar. For an interesting discussion of the ironies of the positions taken on public astronomy by Biot and Arago see Levitt, Theresa, The Shadow of Enlightenment: Optical and Political Transparency in France, 1789–1848, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 71103Google Scholar.

114 Biot, op. cit. (113), p. x.

115 Bigg has suggested that popular participation in astronomy may have been diverted to astrophysics by the end of the nineteenth century because this field had ‘a preference … for representation rather than calculation, for speculation rather than standardization’. Charlotte Bigg, ‘Staging the heavens: astrophysics and popular astronomy in the late nineteenth century’, in Bigg, Aubin and Sibum, op. cit. (26), pp. 305–324, 322. It has also been argued recently that astrophysics itself could only have originated in those ‘operating outside the boundaries of professional physics’ and not in the ‘workers dedicated to the arduous tasks of mapping the stars’. Becker, Barbara, Unraveling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 13CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Such an emergence may have been short-lived, however; for the re-emergence of professionalism in astrophysics see Lankford, John, ‘Amateurs and astrophysics: a neglected aspect in the development of a scientific specialty’, Social Studies of Science (1981) 11, pp. 275303Google Scholar. A further study of how popular practices fared in astrophysics in the twentieth century is vital to understanding whether this development was temporary.

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117 Bigg, Aubin and Sibum, op. cit. (26), pp. 1–32, 26.

118 Battersby, op. cit. (5), p. 58.