The Status of History of Astronomy in America

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Session 30 -- History of Astronomy
Oral presentation, Monday, 9, 1995, 10:00am - 11:30am

[30.05] The Status of History of Astronomy in America

Steven J. Dick (U. S. Naval Observatory)

The retiring Chairman of the HAD (Historical Astronomy Division) reviews the status of the field of history of astronomy in America. Since the founding of the Division some 15 years ago, the variety of HAD-sponsored thematic sessions and contributed papers demonstrates in itself the wide scope of the field, ranging from archaeoastronomy, to comparative studies of "astronomy and the State" in the United States and the Soviet Union, to conceptual and institutional themes and the role of history in teaching. A great deal more remains to be done in terms of research on individuals, institutions, instruments and concepts, particularly archival work, before any kind of synthetic history of astronomy in America can be written.

History of astronomy is valuable to astronomers and the AAS for at least three reasons: 1) historical data, including observations of supernovae, comets, and the positions of stars and planets, are of use to modern astronomy; 2) quite aside from the application of historical data, the field has an intrinsic interest of its own, and provides a perspective across many astronomical specialties that illuminates the nature of astronomical practice, progress and culture; and 3) the Division provides a central focus for discussion and preservation of the Society's own history and archives. The HAD consists of a unique blend of astronomers and historians of science, who often have different approaches to history of astronomy, each offering complementary analytical and technical skills. The HAD News, the HASTRO e-mail Discussion Group, the special interest group in history of astronomy in the History of Science Society, and the biennial history of astronomy workshops all provide forums for advancing the study of history of astronomy in the United States. The newly relocated Center for the History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics provides important archival and oral history resources. History of astronomy in America should also be placed in the context of international developments through cooperation with Commission 41 of the International Astronomical Union.

The upcoming centennial of the American Astronomical Society in 1999 offers a unique opportunity to stimulate a more systematic study of the history of astronomy in America in its many forms.

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