University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > 'A trip to Mars by aeroplane': genres of public astronomy and the practice of astrophysics in the fin de siècle

'A trip to Mars by aeroplane': genres of public astronomy and the practice of astrophysics in the fin de siècle

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In 1901, visitors to Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition were able to take a journey into space. Trips aboard the airship Luna were made by ‘a combination of electrical mechanism and scenic and lighting effects … to produce the sensation of leaving the Earth and flying through space amidst stars, comets and planets’. Although easily dismissed as mere popular spectacle, I will argue that after 1870 emergent forms of mass media – ranging from the material culture of public expositions to newspapers, globes, magic lantern lectures, encyclopaedias, and mass-circulation periodicals and books – were integral to the development and success of a new type of imaginative astronomical practice. In the wake of fierce contests over the use and validity of new experimental astrophysical techniques in the science, this imaginative, publically-oriented astronomy was posited by some as a viable solution to the discipline’s growing crisis of identity. By exploring the wide variety of media that made this new, contested knowledge travel, I will show how practitioners both for and against imaginative astronomy engaged with genres of public science as part of their work to forge rival identities for themselves and their competing sub-disciplines. The paper suggests that the general strictures of astronomy’s cultural marketplace – the resources and constraints this public sphere provided – were embedded within, and therefore constitutive of, debates over the practice of this ‘new astronomy’.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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