Between 1783-1802, the siblings Caroline and William Herschel conducted what has been called “one of the greatest observing campaigns in the history of astronomy.” Their too-successful methodological innovations ( http://www.johncmulligan.net/herschels/ ) produced so much data that Caroline needed over a decade to process it, working by herself after William lost interest. Their work therefore stands at the crossroads of the industrialization of the sciences, the subordination of some forms of intellectual labor to others, and the concomitant problem of big data.
Caroline’s records are so meticulous, and astronomical phenomena are so regular, that we can precisely recreate the siblings’ observations for any given night. My proposal, hinted at in the second chapter of my 2015 dissertation for Brown University, is to interface her data with today’s astronomical databases in an interactive web app visualization that allows users to see what the Herschels did and did not see on any given night. This will make an often daunting and non-digitized archive both available to the public and researchers, and engaging as an interactive tool. It will also serve as a proof of concept for my broader plans to bring this archive back to life as a two-player game, and as a platform for answering unresolved questions about their partnership through quantitative and qualitative methods.
Students engaged in this project will gain experience coding data-driven web applications for archival data. They will learn how to work with and integrate MySQL with open-source, front-end web application frameworks like AngularJS, JQuery, and Flask. Because this is a project based on what are effectively historical databases, this project will also give students an opportunity to learn skills familiar to digital librarians, of how the specificity of a data set and project demand specific solutions.