, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 235-237

Observatory sciences and culture in the nineteenth century

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Observatory histories are a growth industry—as industries go in the history of astronomy—as witness Roger Hutchins’ recent salutary volume on British University Observatories, 17721939 (Ashgate, 2008). This is a rather more unusual volume than most in the genre and valuable for that very reason. Instead of the standard technological or institutional history of a particular observatory or group of observatories, it is a cultural, economic, and scientific look at what the editors call the “observatory sciences,” analogous to the “laboratory sciences” recently analyzed by historians, including not only astronomy but also cartography, geodesy, meteorology, physics, and statistics—in short, those areas where astronomy and its allied science impinge most on society. The volume’s focus on “observatory techniques” is equally broad; defined as physical, methodological, and social, this allows an analysis not only of the usual themes of instrumentation, but also of the concepts of precision, st