• ‘A Gleaming and Glorious Star’: Rethinking History in the Plurality-of-Worlds Debate

    Ben Carver (see profile)
    Fiction, Nineteenth century, Science, History, Philosophy
    Item Type:
    astronomy, Blanqui, evolutionary theory, Nietzsche, plurality of worlds, Nineteenth-century fiction, History of science
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    This article examines how the application of optical technologies to the plurality-of-worlds debate in the nineteenth century brought historical questions of determinism, providence and progress into the field of astronomical science. The development of the telescope and spectroscope, described by Richard A. Proctor in 1870 as ‘light-gatherer’ and ‘light-sifter’ respectively, informed the nebular debate and suggested that the formation of our planet was no different from that of other celestial bodies; stars' and planets' past histories were understood as the light transmissions which appeared to us on Earth as our history might appear to observers elsewhere. By taking light as the medium through which data about the origin and past of the universe were communicated, astronomers (professional, amateur and inexpert) who considered the possibility of other worlds were necessarily involved in other debates that were taking place in the nineteenth century. Cosmogony was understood increasingly in materialist rather than scriptural terms, and participants in the debate, for example Thomas Chalmers and William Whewell, had to coordinate their stances on plurality with both theological and scientific-methodological positions. The debate also served as a proxy setting for reflections on history itself, providing figures of primal horror and eternal return, and also for questioning the telos of human existence, whether conceived as divine providence or as cultural advance. These intersections between astronomy and other disciplines, in particular history, can help explain the use of astral figures to express historiographical scepticism of progress in the late-century.
    This material was part of a larger research project on the nineteenth-century imagination of possible histories: Alternate Histories and Nineteenth-Century Literature: Untimely Meditations in Britain, France, and America (October 2017 with Palgrave’s Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture series, 300pp)
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    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    6 years ago


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