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Drawing in the History of Observation: Seeing, Sketching, and Knowing

Project by Dr. Omar W. Nasim

Handmade drawings by scientists are among the most ubiquitous forms of visual representation in the history of science. They have been used to diagram thoughts, visualize possibilities, and illustrate scientific texts. My interest however has centered on the ways sketching-making techniques have been used in conjunction with scientific observation. By a close historical and archival investigation of handmade drawings made of deep sky objects in the notebooks of nineteenth-century astronomers, I show that mutable and repeated drawings actually contributed to the observational work of the astronomer at the telescope--drawings honed the senses. This has meant that instead of examining published prints of drawings, I turn to unpublished, preliminary sketches that not only feature the tentative nature of astronomical data-formation but the materiality of pencil, paper, and gesture. I have called these “working images” and have contextualized them into the procedures of ordered paperwork. Thus, taken from behind the scenes of scientific work, we begin to see the intensity of observational practices and the ways in which handmade drawings made real contributions to our understanding of difficult astronomical objects such as the nebulae and star clusters.



Observing by Hand Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

•    Winner of the History of Science Society’s Pfizer Book Prize for outstanding scholarly book in the field for last three years, 2016
•    Winner of the Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

“Extending the Gaze: The Temporality of Astronomical Paperwork,” in Science in Context, 2013, 26: 247-277.

Rheinsprung 11: Zur Händigkeit der Zeichnung, co-edited with Hana Gründler, Toni Hildebrandt and Wolfram Pichler, Virtual Issue No. 3, 2012.

“On Scribbles in Space,” in Über Kritzeln: Graphismen zwischen Schrift, Bild, Text und Zeichen, eds. Christian Driesen, et. Al (Zürich/Berlin: Diaphanes, 2012) pp. 71-90.

“Observing by Hand,” in Rheinsprung 11: "Zur Händigkeit der Zeichnung," eds. Hana Gründler, Toni Hildebrandt, Omar Nasim, and Wolfram Pichler, Virtual Issue, 2012, 66-74.

“Zeichnen als Mittel der ‘Familiarisation’ zur Erkundung der Nebel im Lord Rosse-projekt,” in Notieren, Skizzieren. Schreiben und Zeichnen als Verfahren des Entwurfs, eds. Karin Krauthausen and Omar Nasim (Zürich/Berlin: Diaphanes, 2010) pp. 159-88.

“Observation, Working-Images, and Procedure: the ‘Great Spiral’ in Lord Rosse’s Astronomical Record Books and Beyond,” in British Journal for the History of Science, 2010, 43: 353-389.

“On Seeing an Image of a Spiral Nebula: From Whewell to Flammarion,” in Nuncius: Journal of the History of Science, 2009, 24:393-414.

“Beobachtungen mit der Hand: Astronomische Nebelskizzen im 19. Jahrhundert,” in Daten sichern: Schreiben und Zeichnen als Verfahren der Aufzeichnung, ed. Christoph Hoffmann (Zürich/Berlin: Diaphanes Verlag, 2008) pp. 21-46.

“Observations, Descriptions, and Drawings of Nebulae: A Sketch,” in Max Planck Institute for History of Science Pre-Print Series. No. 345, Berlin: 2008.

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie