Allan Chapman : Acceptance Article on becoming SHA President

This was published in the First Newsletter in November 2002

It was with a genuine sense of delight and honour that I accepted the Society for the History of Astronomy’s invitation to become its Inaugural President. For while I have been concerned with the history ofastronomy since childhood, I never dreamt that I would ever have been Honorary President of such a Society.

But what is the value of the history of astronomy? I would argue that, without a coherent sense of our past, human beings are deprived of any real awareness of where we stand within the wider process of human culture. And to understand modern astronomy – just like understanding contemporary politics, art, or medicine – we need to know where we have come from. Otherwise, we become blinkered and self-obsessed, believing that we are the only people that matter. History – in the widest, noblest sense – therefore, teaches us our place.

Yet what should historians of astronomy do? Perhaps the most important thing which we must do is divest ourselves of any romantic or quaint views of the past. While it is true that the history of astronomy is full of curious, exotic, and seemingly larger-than-life figures, we must be careful not to see the history of science simply in terms of the heroic or the sensational. Far more important is our growing understanding of why certain types of people, be they Galileo, Sir William Herschel, or Edwin Hubble, flourished at particular times in the past, real historical scholarship is concerned with context. When we read historical books, undertake original pieces of research into particular astronomers, or prepare talks for societies, we must never lose sight of how a particular person, discovery, or technological innovation fits into the wider picture. History is preeminently about a depth of understanding in time, and true greatness or originality takes on an especial significance when seen in relation to other things.

And what, one might ask, are these ‘other things’? I would argue that we must seek to understand astronomy not simply with reference to itself, such as linking one discovery to another, but in relation to the broader social and historical culture within which developments took place. Why, for instance, were so many clergymen active in astronomy before 1900? Why were Continental European astronomy’s personnel very largely paid professionals, whereas the science in Britain was controlled by ‘Grand Amateurs’? And what technical factors limited the development of cosmology before 1800? Historians of astronomy, therefore, are not simply astronomers with a passing interest in the ‘old days’, but rather people with a broad and open-minded curiosity about those forces which drove human endeavour in the past.

Yet with all these broad historical caveats taken into account, how should a historian of astronomy set about his or her work on a practical level, and what should they look for?
At the most fundamental level, the historian must make an accurate record of surviving astronomical material, for without solid and verifiable facts, there is no history. Do you know of
an astronomically-connected ruin, historic building, or artefact that has somehow evaded the historical record? If so, record it. Observatories, houses, instruments, and the like need to be carefully measured, photographed, and sketched. It is amazing how many such places there are still awaiting historical investigation. I personally have seen ‘time capsule’ observatories – sometimes the workplaces of distinguished astronomers – left untouched for over a century. I have also seen people living in elegantly converted observatories, and used to know a man
who rescued the mahogany mount of a Herschel reflecting telescope from the hallway of a house where it was being used as an umbrella stand. On drawing the owners attention to the
significance of the umbrella stand, he was allowed to buy it –along with the tube, mirror and other bits that had been put in the attic – for a fiver.

So always be on the lookout for interesting artefacts, and after obtaining an owner’s permission, be quick to add solid facts to the historical record. In this respect the Society’s own archive housed in the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, can become a valuable resource for the future.

And just as one might record buildings and objects, so one can also catalogue, conserve, and publish astronomical manuscripts that turn up in all sorts of unlikely places. A couple of years ago, for instance, when I was visiting a church in the depths of the Suffolk countryside, one of the Church Wardens drew my attention to a thick bundle of letters written by one of the most famous of all Victorian astronomers, which had lain in a cupboard in the vestry for 150 years! There is an enormous amount of documentary material out there – surviving observing books, letters, charts, and the like – and it is our job to bring then out of the darkness and into the light.

And when historians write up their findings for record of publication, they should always remember to cite their original sources fully and clearly. For just as a scientist would never dream of presenting conclusions without also citing the full observational or experimental evidences upon which those conclusions are based, so the historian must be equally thorough.
Never simply say that some piece of information came from an ‘old book’. Always record and cite its full details: when the book or manuscript was first written or published, its exact title, and where it is currently deposited. Transparency and retrievability of primary research data is crucial. For a historian’s published claims and conclusions are made stronger, not weaker, by inviting others to verify his or her results.

Then in addition to speaking to each other as fellow historians of astronomy, we must always remember that it is our duty to communicate the importance of historical understanding to the wider public, both within and without the astronomical community. We live, after all, at a time when people are fascinated by all kinds of history, and whether our medium of communication is talks to societies, writing, television, radio, or the internet, we should not forget that people out there are fascinated by the history of science. And it is our business to inform them, clearly, precisely, and with enthusiasm.

Dr Allan Chapman