A British Sky: Imperial Networks and the Symbiotic Relationship Between Imperialism and Astronomy in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire
Despite modern perceptions of science as an apolitical, irreligious, democratizing force, science has historically been a tool used by individuals and organizations for their own purposes. In the case of late European empires, science and scientific “progress” were valuable tools for agendas of Christianization and civilization. Moreover, scientists and scientific methods could be used to further the types of work needed to grow empire – such as a map-making and exploration. However, the relationship between science and empire was not limited to imperial domination. Scientists and scientific bodies could also use the tools of empire to further their scientific work. The Royal Astronomical Society is an excellent example of the “use” of empire – most of its funding came from imperial pundits looking to entrench British superiority. Among the various scientific disciplines practiced in the nineteenth century, astronomy played an interesting role in entrenching the relationship between science and empire – particularly as it was practiced on the fringes of the British empire.
Growing empires necessitated the creation and proliferation of new technologies that in turn made practicing science in recently acquired colonies much easier. The interconnected web of new technologies, scientists, and imperial structures of power and politics combined with scientific desires, colonial ideals, race relations, and imperial economies of trade and knowledge to produce an incredibly complicated vision of science. Astronomy, in its looking to the heavens, reflected back upon earthly issues to ultimately reveal the tangled ideologies that permeated British imperial science at this time. This story of British imperial astronomy is meant to complicate modern notions of what science is and has been.
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