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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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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. xii. On general boredom in the classroom see Tranter John, ‘Biology: dull, lifeless, and boring?’, Journal of Biological Education (2004) 38, pp. 104105.

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

5 Battersby Stephen, ‘Now that's what I call boring’, New Scientist (2009) 204, pp. 5861.

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, 1987; Latour Bruno, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979. Such works builds on Kuhn's understanding of ‘normal science’ in Kuhn Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

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. 292309.

10 Herzig Rebecca, Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Hecht Jennifer Michael, The End of the Soul: Scientific Materialism, Atheism, and Anthropology in France, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

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. 3.

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. 59.

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, 154–156. See also Williams Mari, ‘Beyond the planets: early nineteenth-century studies of double stars’, BJHS (1984) 17, pp. 295300; Sheynin O.B., ‘On the history of the statistical method in astronomy’, Archive for the History of the Exact Sciences (1984) 29, pp. 151199.

15 While the literature of professionalization is large, a representative sample would include for England Morrell Jack and Thackery Arnold, Gentleman of Science: Early Years of the British Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. For France the model continues to be Gillispie Charles Coulton, Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980; Gillispie , Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary Years, vol. 2, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. For Germany an excellent summary of the literature can be found in Geuter Ulfred, The Professionalization of Psychology in Nazi Germany (tr. Holmes Richard J.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 2032.

16 Newcomb Simon, Reminiscences of an Astronomer, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, p. 139.

17 Healy Seán Desmond, Boredom, Self, and Culture, Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1984, p. 27.

18 Pascal Blaise, Pensées (tr. Ariew Roger), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005, pp. 24, 163.

19 This is the central ideal of both Goodstein Elizabeth S., Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005; and Healy, op. cit. (17). For the particular influence on women see Spacks Patricia Meyer, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

20 Beckett Samuel, Proust, New York: Grove Press, 1970, p. 16. Originally published as Beckett Samuel, Proust, New York: Chatto and Windus, 1931. 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. 312.

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. 395422. 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. 285299.

23 Quetelet Adolphe, Astronomie populaire, 2nd edn, Brussels: Remy, 1832, p. vi.

24 Forbes James David, ‘National observatories – Greenwich’, Edinburgh Review (1850) 91, pp. 299356, 301. My thanks to Stephen Case for identifying Forbes as the author of this piece.

25 Everett Edward, The Uses of Astronomy, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1856, p. 16.

26 For an excellent collection that establishes the importance of observatories for science, politics and foreign policy see Bigg Charlotte, Aubin David and Otto Sibum H. (eds.), The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

27 Herrmann Dieter B., ‘An exponential law for the establishment of observatories in the nineteenth century’, Journal for the History of Astronomy (1973) 4, pp. 5758.

28 Hutchins Roger, British University Observatories, Burlington: Ashgate, 2008, pp. 1351.

29 Adams John Quincy, ‘First annual address’, in Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States of America, New York: McLean and Taylor, 1838, pp. 287302, 299, delivered 6 December 1825.

30 Quetelet Adolphe, ‘Extrait d'un rapport sur la formation d'un observatoire dans le Royaume des Pays-Bas’, Correspondance mathématique et physique (1825) 1, pp. 6770.

31 A possible exception was France, where the flagship Paris Observatory suffered from a lack of sustained leadership. Aubin David, ‘The fading star of the Paris Observatory in the nineteenth century: astronomers’ urban culture of circulation and observation’, Osiris (2003) 18, pp. 79100.

32 Kneeland Timothy William, Managing Science and Technology: A Study of Change, 1868–1919, Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1993; Schaffer Simon, ‘Astronomers mark time: discipline and the personal equation’, Science in Context (1988) 2, pp. 115145; Smith Robert W., ‘A national observatory transformed: Greenwich in the nineteenth century’, Journal for the History of Astronomy (1991) 22, pp. 529.

33 Bennett J.A., ‘The English quadrant in Europe: instruments and the growth of consensus in practical astronomy’, Journal for the History of Astronomy (1992) 23, pp. 114, 1.

34 Quetelet Adolphe, Sciences mathématiques et physiques chez les Belges au commencement du XIX siècle, Brussels: Buggenhoudt, 1866, p. 5.

35 On Quetelet's ‘average man’ and his relationship with astronomy, the best source remains Lottin Joseph, Quetelet, statisticien et sociologue, Louvain: Institut supérieur de philosophie, 1912.

36 The growth of practical manuals can be seen in Jean-Charles Houzeau's Bibliographie général. In a bibliography of the most important works published in Europe, Houzeau offered four categories of literature, each with a different audience and function: rudiments, popular introductions for beginners; éléments, explanations of material techniques for advanced students and potential future observatory employees or amateurs; traités, for the mathematical and theoretical foundations of observational practice, and grandes ouvrages didactiques, which attempted to summarize all the theory and practice of astronomy combined with a history of the discipline. In all, Houzeau found 203 works since the late eighteenth century, nearly half of which (ninety-six) were éléments devoted to the practice of professional work. Houzeau J.C. and Lancaster A. (eds.), Bibliographie général de l'astronomie, Brussels: Hayez, 1889.

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. 173197; 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. 213, 3.

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

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

41 Newcomb, op. cit. (16), p. 129.

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, 348. 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, 1830.

44 Herschel John Frederick, A Brief Notice on the Life, Researches, and Discoveries of Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, London: Barclay, 1847, p. 4.

45 Newcomb, op. cit. (16), p. 112.

46 Schaffer, op. cit. (32), p. 115.

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. 34.

48 Newcomb, op. cit. (16), p. 139.

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

50 The Observatory (1895) 17, p. 175.

51 Francoeur L.B., Astronomie pratique: Usage et composition de la connaissance des temps, Paris: Bachelier, 1840, p. vii.

52 The Observatory (1895) 17, p. 377.

53 Gould Benjamin Apthorp, Reduction of the Observations of Fixed Stars Made by Joseph Lepaute d'Agelet, at Paris, 1783–1785, Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1866, p. 70.

54 Forbes, op. cit. (24), p. 329, original emphasis.

55 Airy Wilfred (ed.), Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896, p. 123.

56 Aubin David, ‘Observatory mathematics in the nineteenth century’, in Robson Eleanor and Stedall Jackie (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 238.

57 The Observatory (1895) 18, p. 175.

58 Croarken Mary, ‘Human computers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain’, in Robson Eleanor and Stedall Jackie (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 336.

59 Hingley Peter, Dunkin Edwin and Dabiel Tamsin (eds.), A Far off Vision: A Cornishman at the Greenwich Observatory: Autobiographical Notes by Edwin Dunkin, Cornwall: Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1999, p. 45. Quoted in Croarken, op. cit. (58), p. 384.

60 Evans John, The Juvenile Tourist, 4th edn, London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1818, p. 341.

61 Evans, op. cit. (60), pp. 342–343. Quoted in Croarken, op. cit. (58), p. 387.

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

63 Gillis J. Mellville, ‘Report on the erection of a building in Washington, as a depot for charts and instruments’, in Bernard Cohen I. (ed.), Aspects of Astronomy in America in the Nineteenth Century, New York: Arno Press, 1980, pp. 5180, 67.

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.

65 Westwood Oliver John A., Astronomy for Amateurs: A Practical Manual of Telescopic Research in All Latitudes, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1888, p. 14.

66 Oliver, op. cit. (65), p. 15.

67 The Observatory (1897) 20, p. 115.

68 Chandler Seth Carlo, ‘Third catalog of variable stars’, Astronomical Journal (1896) 16, pp. 145172, 145.

69 Ewing Alexander, Practical Astronomy: Containing a Description of the Solar System; the Doctrine of the Sphere; the Principal Problem in Astronomy, Edinburgh: Peter Hill, 1797, p. vi.

70 The Observatory (1897) 20, p. 115.

71 Kelly John T., Practical Astronomy during the Seventeenth Century: Almanac-Makers in America and England, New York: Garland, 1991, p. 13.

72 An Astronomical Ephemeris, Calendar, or Almanack for the Year of Our Lord 1783, Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1783.

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

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. v.

76 Clerke Agnes Mary, A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1885, p. 5. Reprinted in Clerke Agnes Mary, ‘Astronomy still young’, in Danielson Dennis Richard (ed.), The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking, Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2000, pp. 326333, 327.

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. 409441.

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

79 On the rise and fall of this model in France see Bensaude-Vincent Bernadette, ‘A public for science: the rapid growth of popularization in nineteenth-century France’, Réseaux (1995) 3, pp. 7592.

80 The Observatory (1895) 18, p. 376.

81 Morton E.J.C., Heroes of Science: Astronomers, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882, p. v.

82 Chambers George F., A Handbook of Descriptive Astronomy, 3rd edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1877, p. vii.

83 Chambers, op. cit. (82), p. vii.

84 On the categorization of Chambers's work see Johnson Peter, ‘George F. Chambers, 1841–1915’, Journal of the British Astronomical Association (1990) 100, pp. 1316, 14.

85 Arago François, Astronomie populaire, 4 vols, Paris: Claye, 1854, vol. 1, p. iii.

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.

96 Whitman Walt, ‘When I heard the learn'd astronomer’, in Kaplan Justin (ed.), Walt Whitman, Poetry and Prose, Washington, DC: Library of America, 1996, p. 409.

97 For an excellent recent treatment of Proctor see Chapter 6 of Lightman Bernard V., Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 295351.

98 Proctor Richard A., Old and New Astronomy, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1888, p. iii.

99 Proctor, op. cit. (98), p. 4.

100 Proctor, op. cit. (98), p. 9.

101 Proctor Robert, ‘Sir John Herschel as a theorist in astronomy’, Saint Pauls Magazine (1871) 8, pp. 326339, 327.

102 Proctor, op. cit. (101), pp. 335–338.

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

104 Flammarion Camille, Astronomie populaire: Description générale du ciel, Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1880, p. 2.

105 Flammarion, op. cit. (104), p. 829.

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).

108 MacPherson Hector, ‘Camille Flammarion’, Popular Astronomy (1925) 33, pp. 654658, 656.

109 Woodhouse Robert, An Elementary Treatise on Astronomy, Cambridge: Smith, 1812, p. viii.

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. ix. 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. 71103.

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. 13. 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. 275303. A further study of how popular practices fared in astrophysics in the twentieth century is vital to understanding whether this development was temporary.

116 Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy, On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 2nd edn, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995, pp. 34.

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

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

I am grateful to Brandeis University, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Friends of the Library for financial support. For research assistance, I wish to thank Kerry Magruder and Joann Palmieri at the wonderful History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma, and the generous staff at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library. Also my appreciation to Mark Hulliung, Govind Sreenivasan and the students and faculty in the History Department at Brandeis who read and commented on an earlier draft, as well as the commenters on the Astronomy and Society panel at History of Science Society conference in Phoenix for their thoughtful contributions.

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