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Predicting the Past: Ancient Eclipses and Airy, Newcomb, and Huxley on the Authority of Science

Greek historical accounts of ancient eclipses were an important, if peculiar, focus of scientific attention in the nineteenth century. Victorian-era astronomers tried to correct the classical histories using scientific methods, then used those histories as data with which to calibrate their lunar theories, then rejected the histories as having any relevance at all. The specific dating of these eclipses—apparently a simple exercise in celestial mechanics—became bound up with tensions between scientific and humanistic approaches to the past as well as with wider social debates over the power and authority of science in general. The major figures discussed here, including G. B. Airy, Simon Newcomb, and T. H. Huxley, argued that the critical question was whether science could speak authoritatively about the past. To them, the ability of science to talk about the past indicated its power to talk about the future; it was also the fulcrum of fierce boundary disputes among science, history, and religion.