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Observing by Hand

Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century

Today we are all familiar with the iconic pictures of the nebulae produced by the Hubble Space Telescope’s digital cameras. But there was a time, before the successful application of photography to the heavens, in which scientists had to rely on handmade drawings of these mysterious phenomena.
Observing by Hand sheds entirely new light on the ways in which the production and reception of handdrawn images of the nebulae in the nineteenth century contributed to astronomical observation. Omar W. Nasim investigates hundreds of unpublished observing books and paper records from six nineteenth-century observers of the nebulae: Sir John Herschel; William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse; William Lassell; Ebenezer Porter Mason; Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel; and George Phillips Bond. Nasim focuses on the ways in which these observers created and employed their drawings in data-driven procedures, from their choices of artistic materials and techniques to their practices and scientific observation. He examines the ways in which the act of drawing complemented the acts of seeing and knowing, as well as the ways that making pictures was connected to the production of scientific knowledge.
An impeccably researched, carefully crafted, and beautifully illustrated piece of historical work, Observing by Hand will delight historians of science, art, and the book, as well as astronomers and philosophers.


"Magisterial. . . . [An] exhaustively researched and thoughtfully constructed history."

David DeVorkin | Metascience

“In Omar W. Nasim’s new book, a series of fascinating characters sketch, paint, and etch their way toward a mapping of the cosmos and the human mind. . . . Nasim’s approach blends the history and philosophy of science in a study that informs the histories of astronomy, images, and paperwork, and that emphasizes the importance of the philosophy of mind and its history in shaping this heavenly narrative. His transdisciplinary approach spans several media that include maps and portraits, oil paintings and etchings, private drawings and collectively produced published images. The book helped me see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, and the starry night above, with new eyes and a new appreciation for the vision and visioning of nineteenth century astronomical observers.”

Carla Nappi | New Books in Science, Technology, and Society

"Nasim investigates drawings of nebulae from the 19th century. Arguments over the nature of nebulae arose from publications presenting results that came from different telescopes taken with different observing techniques. Nasim takes readers back to the source material--the observing notebooks upon which the publications were based. He argues that the act of drawing complements the acts of seeing and knowing, and that the use of various materials and methods (including observing notes) affected the astronomers’ conclusions about the nature of the objects they observed. . . . This brilliant analysis questions the relation between observing and communicating. The publisher uses high-quality paper for excellent reproduction of the copious illustrations. Extensive notes and a 20-page list of works cited add to the value of the book. Highly recommended."


"Nasim has written an in-depth history of nineteenth-century nebular observations. His ability to muster the history of science, art, and philosophy to make evident the essential place of drawing during this period makes this an invaluable book. Even more impressive, the ideas explored here have broad generative potential. The careful attention to the distinctive qualities of different types of images and their uses, as well as the clear demonstration of how image-making shapes understanding have ready applicability to other periods in the history of astronomy and the history of science more generally."

Elizabeth A. Kessler, Stanford University | Journal for the History of Astronomy

"Nasim reverses the conventional view of drawing procedures of the nineteenth century. He does not enquire into how drawing techniques displayed perception. Rather, he queries how techniques of visualization have been able to guide perception and lead to understanding...Beautifully written and engrossing, this book will be an indispensable companion to the study of nineteenth-century scientific practices. Critically and efficiently merging art history with the history and philosophy of science, Nasim’s work declares that imaging procedures of the nineteenth century deserve new historical and philosophical attention. It is an elegant and convincing exhortation to enlarge the methodical perspective on the development of scientific observation and visualization.”


"The book has a great deal to offer anyone exploring the various interconnections between science and art. Its emphasis on the creation, use, and transformation of material records provides an entry point for people from many fields. . . . A gorgeous volume that is both aesthetically and intellectually valuable."

Matthew Stanley | Endeavour

“Travel to the nebulae during the nineteenth century and find there a time when scientists could observe with their hands rather than eyes, when they could measure by drawing, and where graphite, stylus, and paper joined the telescope in importance. This is when publicly shared standards about what constituted a scientific observation were still in formation—and it is beautiful. Omar W. Nasim invites us to go where few have ventured, to the unstable, informal and private ‘context of discovery,’ and to admire its splendor.”

Jimena Canales, Harvard University

Observing by Hand is a thoughtful, deeply researched, and important study that engages with significant and fascinating topics: the representations of nebulae—with the focus on drawings—by various observers in the nineteenth century and what such representations can tell us about the nature of scientific observation in general in that century. A major contribution to scholarship.”

Robert W. Smith, University of Alberta

“Observing the position of stars is one thing, observing extended and faint nebulae in a time before photography is quite another. How did researchers pin down their observations, how did they communicate them? In his brilliant analysis of astronomical practice, Omar W. Nasim shows how nineteenth-century observers coped with such challenges. He provides an intriguing case study of how closely observing and communicating are intertwined.”

Friedrich Steinle, Technische Universität Berlin

“In Observing by Hand, Omar W. Nasim focuses on the unpublished notebooks and drawings of six of the most significant nebulae observers of the nineteenth century. He convincingly demonstrates that drawing was a fundamental component of observation and contributed in essential ways in constituting these elusive phenomena, how they were visualized, conceptualized, and studied. This is an impeccably researched and carefully crafted piece of work, and one that provides the closest study of the practices of observation in astronomy—and possibly even in the history of science altogether—that exists to this day.”

Charlotte Bigg, CNRS/Centre Alexandre Koyré d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques, Paris

Table of Contents

1          Consolidation and Coordination: Lord Rosse and His Assistants
2          Use and Reception: Biography of Two Images
3          Conception and Perception: E. P. Mason and Sir John F. W. Herschel
4          Skill and Instrumentation: William Lassell and Wilhelm Tempel

Works Cited


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

History of Science Society: Pfizer Award

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