From Publishers Weekly
It's perhaps surprising that an instrument as seemingly simple as the telescope has had a large impact on human history, from changes in warfare to helping us understand our place in the cosmos. Watson, the astronomer in charge of Australia's largest optical telescope and a science writer, provides a fine overview of the 400-year history of this invention. He's strongest when discussing the people most responsible for moving the field of astronomy forward, controversies surrounding their inventions and the complexities of their lives. From Tycho Brahe, the brilliant early Danish astronomer, to locomotive builder Andrew Barclay, whose telescopes were so flawed that he was convinced Saturn looked "like a half-eaten apple," Watson relates intriguing stories while providing them with a rich cultural context. While still interesting, the work is less compelling when Watson provides specifics about the physics and optics of telescopes. And with so much ground to cover, he rarely delves deeply and provides little if any new information. Yet gathering all of this material in one place and presenting it in such an engaging style is a considerable accomplishment. B&w illus. (Aug. 1)
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This saga of astronomers afflicted with "aperture fever," Watson's diagnosis of the drive to construct ever-larger telescopes, is an avuncular amble through four centuries of the instrument's development. Watson illuminates famous astronomers--Newton, Cassegrain, Schmidt--along with the more obscure. The telescope's exact origin may never be known, but history tips its hat to Dutch optician Hans Lipperhey, unsuccessful applicant for a Dutch patent, and to Galileo, epochal maker of the first telescopic discoveries. The race for bigger and better telescopes was on; however, it was impeded by two fundamental technical problems: spherical and chromatic aberration. Discerning the correct shapes for lenses and mirrors was more easily done than eliminating spurious colors, and by the time William Herschel made his entrance on the astronomical stage in the 1780s, aperture fever assumed the size-matters symptoms it still exhibits today. Watson's narrative of inevitable overreaching and brilliant success is often funny, occasionally poignant, and definitely accessible--a fine reflection of this Australian astronomer's popularizing skills. Gilbert Taylor
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