Big Sky: Popular Ideas about the Heavens in America

Trent MacNamara, Texas A&M University

This paper would survey an early-stage book project on Americans’ changing understandings of the heavens. The working hypothesis is that beginning around 1800, non-elites grew more aware of scientific cosmologies that challenged older conceptions of the heavens as a nearby, human-centered space—home of a watchful God, paradise for the departed, location of heavenly bodies whose positions guided human affairs, source of rain or drought, font of wonder, humility and fate. Popularized astronomy and cosmology gradually emptied and abstracted these fateful “heavens,” replacing them with the colder and more impersonal “space.” A reservoir of human imponderables became a frontier for technological conquest. Along the way, ordinary Americans were forced to adapt their conceptions of cosmic place and transcendent meaning. The project's overall aim is to bring to light mystical and scientific vernaculars that have gone largely unnoticed in the history of cosmology, which has focused on elite science and theology.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 114. Religion and Culture