U.Va. Undergraduate Examines Public Support for Early Observatories

March 20, 2014

The University of Virginia Faculty Senate and Center for Undergraduate Excellence recently announced the recipients of the 2014 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards. To mark the announcement, UVA Today looks back at what some of the 2013 grantees have learned in the past year.

People financed early astronomical observatories in the United States in part because they wanted access to telescopes for themselves, according to research by a history and astrophysics major at the University of Virginia.

Third-year student Catherine Zucker, 21, of Alexandria, studied the rise of American astronomy before the Civil War, research underwritten by the Finger Family Research Award.

The Finger Family Research Award is modeled after the Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards program, which funds undergraduate research projects for one year. In that program, first-, second- and third-year undergraduate students compete for approximately 40 awards of up to $3,000 each. Recipients then work closely with a faculty mentor in carrying out their research.

“In 1830, America had no astronomical observatories,” Zucker said. “By 1880, our country boasted almost 150. My thesis analyzes the hierarchy of causes that led to the rise of the observatory movement in the United States.”

In the early 1800s, constitutional questions and political rivalries prevented the federal government from underwriting scientific research, so astronomers turned to the general public to finance observatories.

“In the 1840s, the Harvard College Observatory and the Cincinnati Observatory were the first two major research observatories to be built through public patronage,” Zucker said. “They were the frontrunners of the observatory movement, and the case studies for my thesis.”

Prior to the 1830s, astronomy was largely a practical science involving repetitive calculations such as charting the time and length of eclipses or the rising and setting times of various planets. The rise of the observatory movement aligned with the appearance of newer, more advanced telescopes, ushering in a new era of physical astronomy and greatly expanding the range of study, from this solar system to other star systems and eventually to other galaxies.

“This was the sort of science that attracted widespread support, and people like Ormsby Mitchel – the founder of the Cincinnati Observatory – were able to tap into these exciting discoveries to increase public support for astronomy,” Zucker said.

At the same time, there were other initiatives that primed public interest, such as the lyceum movement, founded in the United States by Josiah Holbrook, who viewed lyceums as associations for science instruction through public lectures and science classes.

“Astronomy became a favored science of the lyceum system, as it brilliantly mixed entertainment and education – two hallmarks of the lyceum lecture system.” Zucker said. “The lyceum system, along with a sharp rise in the publishing of popular astronomical texts, helped to create a lay audience for astronomy, which in turn led to financial support for the Harvard College and Cincinnati observatories.”

Another spark of public interest was the Great Comet of 1843, which could be seen during broad daylight.

“Celestial events like this drew Americans’ attention to the wonders of the heavens and the merits of an observatory with which to view them,” Zucker said. “Other reasons why people donated included republicanism, natural theology, institutional pride and a desire to make America scientifically competitive with Europe.”

Zucker assumed that these various factors were enough to inspire the public to support basic scientific research, funding research for the sake of research.

“I thought that people donated to observatories because they wanted to support basic scientific research,” she said. But she discovered many had dual motives. “They donated in order to receive access to a telescope, and a desire to support scientific advancement was often a secondary or tertiary concern.”

Both the Harvard and Cincinnati observatories were funded through the sale of subscriptions that provided the donors direct access to the telescopes.

“Through their subscription, ranging, on average, from $25 at Cincinnati to $500 at Harvard, donors were allowed to visit the observatory on certain days and times in order to view celestial objects themselves – features like comets, the moons of Jupiter or Saturn’s rings,” Zucker said. “This was the sort of exciting, yet somewhat superficial science that drew crowds of subscribers.”

Raising money this way contained internal contradictions. The more the telescopes were used for public observing, less time was available for scientific research. When the director of the Cincinnati Observatory restricted telescope use to research only, patrons stopped donating, which temporarily halted all scientific investigations at the observatory. The Harvard observatory built an endowment, but it was insufficient to heat the observing room during the winter, causing one of its scientists to further sicken with tuberculosis.

“Viewing astronomical wonders through the telescope was compelling, but it could not sustain the less-visible daily science that formed the core of these observatories’ missions,” Zucker said.

Despite these challenges, both observatories advanced science.

“Two decades earlier, Harvard did not contain a single astronomical instrument capable of producing any significant scientific results,” Zucker said. “By the end of the 1840s, both Harvard and Cincinnati had installed some of the world’s best telescopes, thereby achieving technological dominance alongside Europe’s best observatories. And, unlike European observatories, they achieved it through public subscription rather than government support.”

Zucker’s research will help shape understanding of how developments in 19th-century American science created dramatic changes in the 20th century, according to Karen V.H. Parshall, professor of history and mathematics.

“Catherine comes to her project on antebellum American astronomy as both an astrophysicist and an historian, the perfect combination of skills for a project on the history of astronomy,” Parshall said. “Working with Catherine has been a positive joy.   Our numerous discussions over the course of the past year and a half have revealed a maturing historian, one who knows how to marshal evidence, one who appreciates the subtleties of an argument, one who leaves no stone unturned.”

An Echols Scholar, Zucker is a student researcher in the astronomy department and has been doing research on the accelerated evolution of compact group galaxies. She is a volunteer for “Dark Skies, Bright Kids!,” an astronomy department outreach program that offers planetarium shows to local elementary school students. She received a Small Research and Travel Grant to present astronomical research at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2013 and an Echols Scholarship Fund award to go on an observing run at the Bok 90-inch telescope at Arizona’s Steward Observatory in December 2012. She is a Wolfe Undergraduate Docent at the Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, a member of the Echols Council and was accepted to the History Distinguished Majors Program a year early.

“I would like a career in academia,” Zucker said. “I want to pursue cutting-edge astronomical research while maintaining my ties to the history of science community and my history roots.”

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