Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Astronomers at the Observatory: Place, Visual Practice, Traces

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Astronomers at the Observatory: Place, Visual Practice, Traces

Article excerpt


Focusing ethnographically on astronomers engaged in "look back studies" of cosmic evolution, this essay considers how they make telescopic observations at an optical observatory in the context of their epistemic work at other sites. Foucault's notion of a heterotopia captures key aspects of how the observatory is set apart from astronomers' work with digital data elsewhere. However, visual practices of interpreting telescopic exposures in the observatory's control room do reach across this divide and inform later epistemic work, such as when scientists use these exposures retrospectively as windows into the functioning of telescopes and detectors. Visiting astronomers remark that witnessing the emergence of exposures in the control room asserts to them the reality of the cosmic objects they study. I interpret this as being grounded in their understanding of semiosis. [Keywords: Anthropology of science, scientific observation, scientific practice, place and space]

Foreign language translations:

Astronomers at the Observatory: Place, Visual Practice, Traces

[Keywords: Anthropology of science, scientific observation, scientific practice, place and space]


Astronomos no Observatório: Local, Práticas Visuais, Traços

[Palavras chaves: Antropologia de ciência, observação científica, práctica científica, local e espaco


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Making the Distant Visible

Georg Simmel once made an intricate remark on scientific observation in modernity. Pondering how varying styles of life affect the distance experienced between the self and the external world, he noticed in passing that "it is true that the infinite distances between ourselves and objects have been overcome by the microscope and the telescope; but we were first conscious of these distances only at the very same moment in which they were overcome...[C]oming closer to things often only shows us how far away they still are from us" (Simmel 1978:475).

In this essay, I reflect on Simmel's sobering remark in a contemporary setting, and consider how astronomers experience observing the distant universe at an optical observatory in the Chilean Andes. I approach the subject by focusing on astronomers' visual practices there, inquiring into how these relate to those common at other sites of their epistemic work. As such, this text is about the extremes of vision.

Ethnographic accounts of laboratory work offer abundant support for Heidegger's (1950) claim that "making visible" is a foundational gesture of modern science. In manifold ways, "inscriptions" and "traces" are often regarded collectively and embedded in conversations when evidence is fixed, accounts are produced, and facts are made. Along the way, artifacts of local conditions are presumably erased (Knorr-Cetina 1981, Lynch 1985, Latour and Woolgar 1986, Amann and Knorr-Cetina 1988). Historians of astronomy have demonstrated that observatory techniques have been aimed at progressively disciplining human perception and organizing it socially towards ideals of objectivity. In this respect, they have much in common with laboratory practices (Pinch 1985, Schaffer 1988, Crary 1990, Daston and Galison 2007, Aubin et al. 2010).1

However, visual practices at observatories may differ from those at laboratories, due perhaps to their different spatial relation to objects of inquiry (exteriority vs. interiority), epistemic function (observation vs. experimentation), or division of epistemic labor (at multiple vs. single sites of practice). Theoretical work that explicitly relates the properties of signs to the experience and habits of perceiving them will help to illuminate visual practices at the observatory in a comprehensive way and contrast them with those common in laboratories.

I turn as a case in point to elements of semiosis in an observatory's control room, and for illuminating scientists' practices there to the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (cf. …

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