Journal article Open Access

On the boredom of science: positional astronomy in the nineteenth century

Donnelly, Kevin

To those not engaged in the practice of scientific observation, or telling the story of this enterprise, the image of scientific research may conjure up images of boredom more than anything else. Yet surprisingly, the profoundly uninteresting nature of scientific research to the majority of historical readers has received little attention. This paper seeks to examine one moment of encroaching boredom: nineteenth-century positional astronomy as practiced at large observatories. Observatory workers, who had once been in charge of manipulating complex equipment, were reduced to clerks, while at the same time observatory directors ignored elements of astronomy that had previously kindled public interest. Eclectic and colorful almanacs were replaced with dry ephemerides, and when popular authors like Richard Proctor tried to fill the void, their efforts were mocked by the professionals. On the whole the effort to popularize scientific observation of the skies must be seen as a failure; science and drudgery became synonymous in the public mind and attention was directed elsewhere. Though possibly a coincidence, this new form of astronomical observation was coeval with the introduction of a word very familiar today, but for which the OED has no record of prior the mid-nineteenth century: boredom.

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