The astronomer's chair is a leitmotif in the history of astronomy, appearing in hundreds of drawings, prints, and photographs from a variety of sources. Nineteenth-century stargazers in particular seemed eager to display their observing chairs—task-specific, often mechanically adjustable observatory furniture designed for use in conjunction with telescopes. But what message did they mean to send with these images?
In The Astronomer's Chair, now available from the MIT Press, Omar W. Nasim considers these specialized chairs as both image and object, offering an original framework for linking visual and material cultures. Observing chairs, Nasim ingeniously argues, showcased and embodied forms of scientific labor, personae, and bodily practice that appealed to bourgeois sensibilities. Nasim “reveal[s] with startling insight and expert craft the complex cultures of comfort, attention, and discipline that governed nineteenth-century stargazing,” writes Simon Schaffer, Professor of History of Science at the University of Cambridge.
Viewing image and object as connected parts of moral, epistemic, and visual economies of empire, Nasim shows that nineteenth-century science was represented in terms of comfort and energy, and that “manly” postures of Western astronomers at work in specialized chairs were contrasted pointedly with images of “effete” and cross-legged “Oriental” astronomers. Extending his historical analysis into the twentieth century, Nasim reexamines what he argues to be a famous descendant of the astronomer's chair: Freud's psychoanalytic couch, which directed observations not outward toward the stars but inward toward the stratified universe of the psyche.
David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science at MIT, writes, “The Astronomer's Chair demonstrates how assumptions about peoples and personae shaped the instrumentation—right down to the chair—of modern observatories.”
Whether in conjunction with the mind or the heavens, the observing chair was a point of entry designed for specialists that also portrayed widely held assumptions about who merited epistemic access to these realms in the first place. With more than 100 images throughout, The Astronomer’s Chair tells the story of this eponymous item, offering a particular kind of science and a particular view of history.
About the Author: Omar W. Nasim is Professor for the History of Science at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Regensburg, Germany. In addition to The Astronomer’s Chair, he is the author of Observing by Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century, winner of the History of Science Society's Pfizer Award for 2016. Learn more about the author on his website: https://www.omarnasim.com/
Learn more about the book via the MIT Press website: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/astronomers-chair