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Extending the Gaze: The Temporality of Astronomical Paperwork

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 April 2013

Omar W. Nasim*
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH-Zurich) E-mail:


Keeping records has always been an essential part of science. Aside from natural history and the laboratory sciences, no other observational science reflects this activity of record-keeping better than astronomy. Central to this activity, historically speaking, are tools so mundane and common that they are easily overlooked; namely, the notebook and the pencil. One obvious function of these tools is clearly a mnemonic one. However, there are other relevant functions of paperwork that often go unnoticed. Among these, I argue, is the strategic use made of different procedures of record keeping to prolong observational time with a target object. Highlighting this function will help us to appreciate the supporting role played by the notebook and the pencil to extend the observational time spent with a target object. With objects as delicate, faint, and mysterious as the nebulae, the procedures used to record their observations helped nineteenth-century observers overcome the temporal handicaps and limitations of large and clumsy telescopes, mounted in the altazimuth manner. To demonstrate the importance of paper and pencil, I will closely examine the observing books, the drawings found therein, and the telescopes of three nineteenth-century observers of the nebulae: Sir John F. W. Herschel, Lord Rosse, and William Lassell.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013

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