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


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.

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John Tranter , ‘Biology: dull, lifeless, and boring?’, Journal of Biological Education (2004) 38, pp. 104105

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Dieter B. Herrmann , The History of Astronomy from Herschel to Hertzsprung (tr. Kevin Krisciunas ), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 158

Bernard V. Lightman , Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 295351

Theresa Levitt , The Shadow of Enlightenment: Optical and Political Transparency in France, 1789–1848, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 71103

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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