History of Astronomy : Working Group for the History of Astronomy : Meetings : Göttingen 1999

Colloquium of the Working Group for the History of Astronomy during the International Conference of the Astronomische Gesellschaft

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The annual convention of the Astronomische Gesellschaft will be taking place in Göttingen this year under the rubric New Astrophysical Horizons. At this occasion there will be a Colloquium of the Working Group for the History of Astronomy (Arbeitskreis Astronomiegeschichte) on

Monday, September 20, 1999, starting probably at 10 am.

The Local Organizing Committee has approved the following general theme:

The history and function of nonverbal representations in astronomical and astrophysical research practice

This primarily involves images or other forms of pictorial registration (e.g., photographs, video tapes) of observational data. For more details please see below.

The recommended conference language is English. Participants who want to attend the AK meeting only, but not the (rest of) the AG meeting, will have to pay a reduced conference fee of 30,- DEM.

Please direct any questions about the content, offers to deliver brief talks together with a one-page English abstract, typed by typewriter, or as a text file in ASCII, or as an rtf file in Word95/97, or a TeX file, if possible no later than

31 May 1999 to:

Dr. habil. Klaus Hentschel
Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Humboldtallee 11
D-37073 Göttingen
Tel. +(49)-551-398412
e-mail: khentsc@gwdg.de

Organisational questions, technical requests, etc. may be directed to:

Dr. Axel D. Wittmann
Geismarlandstr. 11
D-37083 Göttingen
Tel. +(49)-551-395045
Fax. +(49)-551-395043
e-mail: wittmann@uni-sw.gwdg.de

The history and function of nonverbal representations in astronomical and astrophysical research practice

Colloquium of the Working Group for the History of Astronomy (Arbeitskreis Astronomiegeschichte), in Göttingen, on Monday, 20 September 1999

Pictorial or graphical records form an integral part of the history of astronomy, from its very beginnings down to modern-day electronically manipulable CCD-imaging.

Examples include: star-position charts, lunar maps, sunspot sketches and photographs, spectral atlases, graphical data representations (such as the Hertzsprung-Russell or the Maunder diagrams), spectroheliograms, planet drawings, images from satellites and outer space, photometer curves, and many more.

How direct is this graphic conversion by man or machine of the subject of observation or registration? What problems emerge in the translation process? How does the constant search for improvements in the representational form develop?

One instance is the rise of photography, which was welcomed with the hope that henceforth "Nature herself" would become the recorder, thus doing away with the problems of human bias and artistic deficiency (Fox Talbot's "The Pencil of Nature", 1844).

In practice, though, the retouching of photographic prints was as inescapable as the necessity of the observer to select the 'best' (also aesthetically speaking) among the available images. Well into the 1890s, lithography remained the preferred means in spectroscopy of depicting the optical spectrum, despite its high production costs.

When does such a change in preference occur? What are the repercussions in the research practice? What influence do external technological developments have? How did and how do astronomers and astrophysicists interact with illustrators, engravers, lithographers, photographers, and other specialistsin the graphic arts involved in the drafting or finishing of their figures for publication or teaching? What criteria are used in such reworking - are they really unassailable? What heuristics are used to discriminate between facts and artefacts? What specifically happened in controversies over illustrations (like the one about the notorious Martian channels), and what technical alternatives for representations existed at the various times? Aside from documenting observational results, images have other functions as well: they must convince the reader or viewer, clarify complicated processes by means of simplified illustration, or be a mnemonic aid to the beginner in visualizing specific patterns. How are and were the classes of stellar spectra or solar spots learned? What role did pictures have in teaching? Historical studies of astronomical and astrophysical representations are our main emphasis, but scientists in the field are also invited to think about the current functions of imaging (e.g., unsharp masking, speckle deconvolution, or image compression) and the ever changing techniques used, which inevitably will soon become part of history as well.

Klaus Hentschel, Axel Wittmann

Wolfgang R. Dick. Created: 17 March 1999