Prompted by the call for posts on ‘Visuals and Representation’ for the Giants’ Shoulders Blog Carnival, I fell to thinking about the National Maritime Museum‘s print collection, which includes a nice range of images of astronomy and its practitioners. Astronomers are, popularly, represented with and by their telescopes, whether a hand-held object pointed to the sky or an enormous (probably intentionally phallic), reflector mounted beneath a dome. This is despite the fact that few professional astronomers today go so far as to put their eye to their instruments.
The telescope clearly indicates the obsession of the astronomer with things beyond the earthly realm and, ipso facto, a lack of interest – even lack of understanding – of things going on closer to home. This image of the scientist or philosopher as being concerned only with higher things is an ancient one, being at least as old as the Greeks (Steven Shapin has discussed such tropes, especially the idea that philosophers are so other-worldly that they forget to eat). Tales of lack of mundane concerns or, its satirical equivalent, absent-mindedness, can be admiring, affectionate or critical. Related humour in prints and cartoons can be pretty broad, and tend to follow one of two obvious lines.
The first is the pratfall: the astronomer has is eye so constantly turned to the heavens that he trips over his cat or falls down a well. In this 19th-century print it is an astrologer, illustrating one of the fables written by Jean La Fontaine (1621-1695), ‘The astrologer who stumbled into a well’:
An Astologer once fell
incontinently down a well.
‘How can you claim to read the sky,
poor fool, who cannot keep your eye
on where your feet are!’, came the cry
While this story specifically attacked astrology, and its fruitless distractions, there are similar images and stories about astronomers. The print itself, by depicting a telescope – something not mentioned by Fontaine – expands the joke to all users of such instruments.
The other approach in this type of satire is the slightly more titillating idea that the astronomer’s lack of attention allow his wife, daughter or servants to get up to naughty things behind his back. There are a large number of prints working around this theme: one rather fine one in the National Maritime Museum’s collections depicts an elderly astronomical enthusiast being cuckolded by a telescope-seller, who distracts his client with the latest gadgets while making free with his wife.
Both of these images are, by chance, French but it is a universal approach. I can direct the reader to English prints in the same vein (for example this one by Cruikshank) or this rough but rather charming sketch by Phiz, better known as illustrator to Charles Dickens. The joke of someone with a powerful optical device who nevertheless fails to see what’s right under their nose is, unsurprisingly, still to be found in cartoons of today.
However, it was not the only way of poking fun at astronomers. Another trope, which I have more commonly seen in text than images, is the drunk astronomer. This works, of course, by reversing the expectation that philosophers and men of science are abstemious and too distracted by their thoughts to enjoy the normal earthly pleasures. It was also a nice joke: why else would anyone believe that the earth was revolving?
Thus one of the earliest volumes of Punch (1842, vol. 3, p. 229) meditated on ‘The Philosophy of Drunkenness’, or ‘The Genius of the Cork’, explaining that Newton would never have discovered universal gravitation without being drunk. Apparently, seeing the apple fall, and struck by the “nascent idea”, he “called for another bottle, – and then for another; and when the philosopher had pondered upon the apple, had worked his analogies, and had drunk a third bottle,—he was convinced, that not only had the apple spun as it fell, but that the whole world turned round”.
The mathematician Augustus De Morgan, who was an avid reader of Punch (he pasted many of the cartoons into his copies of Notes & Queries, now held at the University of London’s Senate House Library) published the ‘Astronomer’s Drinking Song’ in his Budget of Paradoxes, as, he claimed, an example of a kind of humour that was more typical of an earlier era than that in which he was writing (1860s).
Copernicus, that learned wight,
The glory of his nation,
With floods of wine refreshed his sight,
And saw the earth’s rotation.
Each planet then its orb described,
The moon got underway, Sir,
These truths from nature he imbibed,
For he drank is bottle a-day, Sir.
De Morgan, at least, enjoyed the joke, printing (or perhaps writing) the many verses, and adding in copious mock-scholarly footnotes. The British Society for the History of Science’s Songs from the History of Science collection would suggest that the later 19th and early 20th century was the heyday for this kind of silliness, although I am sure that readers can enlighten me further.