Journalist Richard Panek begins his historical essay on the telescope with the Hubble Deep Field. This extended exposure by space telescope is a picture that looks out of our galaxy--farther, immeasurably farther, than the human eye has seen before. It exemplifies the purpose of all telescopes: "To address our place in the universe, literally. To size up all of space and figure out where we are in it." How and why did this particular technology have such profound effects?
Panek first considers Galileo, who "raised his new instrument toward the night sky and understood at once that there was more to see--and more to seeing--than meets the eye.... Unlike spectacles or magnifying lenses, the optic tube offered not just a distortion of what was already there, but more. It revealed evidence that was different from what the naked eye could see, evidence that wasn't otherwise there." Panek goes on to look at the, ahem, luminaries of observational astronomy--William Herschel, George Ellery Hale, Edwin Hubble--showing how faith in the telescope grew and our mental image of the universe expanded until "all the assumptions safely based on observation are gone." Panek's prose is vivid and beautiful, sustaining this (curiously) unillustrated book as it traces the astronomer's quest for light and dark, sight and belief. --Mary Ellen Curtin
From Publishers Weekly
Panek's concise, popularly written history of the telescope is an exciting interstellar voyage that shows how a humble novelty item and maritime tool evolved into a powerful exploratory instrument that has changed our conception of the cosmos. Although Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons with a spyglass in 1610 helped demolish the medieval worldview that placed a stationary earth at the center of creation, faulty lenses and frustrating optics hobbled astronomical research for decades. Amateur astronomer William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781 led to his pre-Einsteinian insight that stargazers were not only looking tens of trillions of miles into space, but also penetrating into time past. Yet, incredibly, as recently as the turn of this century most astronomers clung to the belief that the universe consisted of just one galaxyAoursAwith the sun in a central position. In 1996, the Hubble Space Telescope pierced the heavens, resulting in the current estimate of a total of 50 billion galaxies. Panek (Waterloo Diamonds), contributing writer at Elle and Mirabella, puts these and other conceptual breakthroughs into clear perspective as he deftly explains how astronomy's interface with photography, spectroscopy, radio and space exploration led to the discovery of quasars, pulsars, black holes, galaxy superclusters and the search for "dark matter." His narrative sometimes bogs down in technical detail, but, nonetheless, it is a delightful intellectual adventure, fleshed out with vivid cameos of innovators like Tycho Brahe, Edwin Hubble and visionary astrophysicist George Ellery Hale, who in 1948 supervised the construction of what was then the world's largest telescope at Mount Palomar, but whose mental illness made him report that he was suffering periodic visits from an elf. Agent, Henry Dunow.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.