September 08, 2005


Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope. By Fred Watson. Da Capo. $24.95.

      Astronomers no longer look through telescopes. Starting with that remarkable (to non-astronomers) fact, Dr. Fred Watson – Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran in New South Wales, Australia – sweeps back in time to 1566 and the duel in which Tyge (later Tycho) Brahe nearly lost his sight, if not his life. Brahe later became the foremost scientist of his time, his astronomical work deemed so important that the king of Denmark gave him an island on which to work.

      Watson’s book is part history, part science, part analysis, part celebration of knowledge. If it does not always hang together, it is at least always lively and informative. Watson is equally familiar with important telescope builders little known to the public (Herschel, Ross, Hale) and with scientists who names have become household words (Galileo, Isaac Newton, Edwin Hubble). He is also highly knowledgeable about astronomical instruments; this is why he can clearly explain the reason astronomers no longer look through telescopes, which now consist of “giant mirrors, perfectly curved into shallow dishes to capture and focus the incoming light.” To put it simply, “human eyes compare very unfavourably with sensitive TV-type detectors.”

      But of course the human eye was needed for all early telescopes, and it was the human eye, looking ever farther into the skies beyond Earth, that helped confirm Copernicus’ sun-centric theory of the solar system and led to enormous advances in such earthbound endeavors as navigation and warfare. Interestingly, with all the names, dates and facts Watson tosses about, he states, “The modern consensus is that we will never know for certain who actually invented the telescope.” But we certainly know a lot about how it developed, including in some less than lofty ways (Watson’s chapter, “Astronomers Behaving Badly,” is an eye-opener). As the book marches inexorably on, it becomes rather more technical, delving into discussions of how modern telescopes are made and why – material of perhaps less general interest than the earlier, historical information dealing with the days when astronomers did look through telescopes. Still, this is a book filled with fascinating tidbits about a scientific instrument whose importance should not be underestimated. Watson’s Epilogue, written from the perspective of the year 2108, is an eye-opener worthy of science fiction – or, perhaps, soon-to-be science fact.

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