Apr 25, 2008

Podcast: Astronomy and Empire

From the BBC's In Our Time series Melvyn Bragg and three distinguished academics discuss the link between colonial expansion and scientific discovery.

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 Transit of Venus discoveries 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.

How had ancient trade routes set a precedent for colonial expansion? What was the link between astronomy and surveying? What tools did the 18th and 19th century astronomers have at their disposal? And how did the British justify their colonial ambition and scientific superiority?

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

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