Lyne Starling Trimble Public Lecture - Touching the Sky: Tangible Things of American Astronomy

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Wednesday, 6 November 2019
American Center for Physics, College Park, Maryland

Dr. Sara J. Schechner

Touching the Sky: Tangible Things of American Astronomy

Presented by Dr. Sara J. Schechner

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Reception: 5:30 p.m.
Talk: 6:30 p.m.

American Center for Physics
1 Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740


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As a science that studies celestial objects situated at vast distances from us, astronomy deals with few things that can be touched directly. And yet, astronomy has many tangible things—scientific instruments, observatories, and log books, for example—which link the past to the present. There is little question about maintaining things still valuable for scientific research purposes, but why should we care about documenting and preserving the old and obsolete? One answer is that material things, when closely examined, enhance our knowledge of astronomy’s history in ways that written texts alone cannot do. A second answer is that learning about the past helps us live critically in the present. In brief case studies, this talk will find meaning in objects that are extraordinary or commonplace. These will include a sundial, an almanac, telescopes, clocks, a rotating desk, photographic plates, and fly spankers.


Sara Schechner, Ph.D. is the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University. She is a historian of science, specializing in material culture and the history of astronomy. At Harvard, she is a Lecturer on History of Science in the History of Science Department and has been on the faculty of the Museum Studies program. She brings nearly forty years of museum and academic experience to the Harvard community.

Her books include Comets, Popular Culture, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology (1997), Time and Time Again: How Science and Culture Shape the Past, Present, and Future (2014), Tangible Things: Making History through Objects (2015, with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, and Sarah Carter), and the interpretive catalog Time of Our Lives: Sundials of the Adler Planetarium (2019).