It is this process, which is usually at its most potent and efficacious in its coming-to-know aspects early on in an observer’s work on the nebulae, that over time translates into an acquaintance with what sorts of eyepieces, for example, are best for showing what has become visually familiar, or what requires calibration in the procedures or instruments employed, and so on. This personal and intimate set of actions contributes to the slow, gradual familiarization with an «epistemic object.» [17]

In stressing the processual, repetitive and gradual character of familiarization, however, we have already moved beyond the initial, momentary sketch that an observer-draughtsman began the process with. This is necessary, because the true potential of the operations of pencil on paper occurs gradually and piecemeal over time, as they unfold within a systematic procedure of observation. What is characteristic about many of the nineteenth century nebular observational programs is that the published image of an object is always preceded by a collection of many kinds of sketches of the same object done on a number of nights. To remain solely at the very preliminary and initial stages of a process would therefore not reflect nor capture what is most fascinating about the published standard visual figures of the nebulae produced: their purported ability to transcend a particular night and its observational conditions, an observer’s idiosyncrasies, the many individual and nightly sketches made of the object, the idiosyncrasies of a nebulous object, and even in some cases the particular specs of the telescope used.

What made the published figures well suited in their capacity to visualize the phenomena, it was thought, was exactly their facility, reflected in the manner of their production, to overcome the peculiarities and specificities of site, observer, instrumentation (whether telescope or stylus) and individual glimpses. In order to understand this capacity of the published image, one must understand how it was that an observer went from an individual sketch imbibed with personality, idiosyncratic preferences, a situatednesss in a particular place, temporary scaffolding, errors, and so on, all the way to a final pictorial representation deemed fit for engraving, publication, and ultimately for the scientific gaze.

Observing by Hand will therefore attempt to articulate the productive role of the hand into the history of scientific observation, a history that tends to be told primarily by means of minds, eyes, and novel instruments.

Omar W. Nasim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Chair for Science Studies at the ETH-Zurich, and is a member of Eikones in Basel.

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