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Astronomy and Empire

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 04 May 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the relationship between astronomy and the British Empire. The 18th century explorer and astronomer James Cook wrote: 'Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go'. Cook's ambition took him to the far reaches of the Pacific and led to astronomical observations which measured the distance of Venus to the Sun with unprecedented accuracy.

Cook's ambition was not just personal and astronomical. It represented the colonial ambition of the British Empire which was linked inextricably with science and trade. The discoveries about the Transit of Venus, made on Cook's voyage to Tahiti, marked the beginning of a period of expansion by the British which relied on maritime navigation based on astronomical knowledge.

With Simon Schaffer, Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge; Kristen Lippincott, former Director of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich; Allan Chapman, Historian of Science at the History Faculty at Oxford University.

  • Further Reading

    Allan Chapman, Astronomical Instruments and their Users (Variorum, 1996)

    Allan Chapman, England's Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution (Taylor & Francis, 2004)

    Allan Chapman, Mary Somerville and the World of Science (Canopus, 2004)

    Patricia Fara, Fatal Attraction (Faber and Faber)

    Elly Dekker, Globes at Greenwich (National Maritime Museum and OUP)

    Emily Winterburn, The Astronomers Royal (National Maritime Museum)

    Alain Peyrefitte, The Collision of Two Civilisations (HarperCollins)

    Peter Whitfield, The Charting of the Oceans (British Library)

    John Keay, The Great Arc (HarperCollins, 2000)

    John North, The Fontana History of Astronomy and Cosmology (HarperCollins, 1992)

    Joanna Waley-Cohen, The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History (Norton & Co. Ltd. 2000)

    Douglas Botting, Humboldt and the Cosmos (Michael Joseph, 1973 - out of print)

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