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Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope Hardcover – July 12, 2005

4.5 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition edition (July 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306814323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306814327
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,043,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Tim F. Martin on April 6, 2006
Format: Hardcover
_Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope_ by Fred Watson is an epic, far-ranging history of one of the most important instruments in science. Watson traced the origin and development of the telescope from nearly four hundred years ago, when Dutch craftsmen Hans Lipperhey first brought to the world's attention the telescope in 1608 (the author demonstrated that though he gets credit for first bringing it to international attention, he is perhaps not the instrument's original inventor, as there were at least several near simultaneous separate inventions of it), all the way to the present with the impressive orbiting Hubble telescope.

The book is at times as much a history of astronomy as it is of the telescope, chronicling some of the lives of such luminaries as Galileo, Johannes Kepler, William Herschel, and George Ellery Hale and many of the big discoveries, such as the discoveries of the cloud belts of Jupiter, Saturn's rings, the planet Uranus, the moons of Mars, and the first spiral galaxy. Some of the most interesting accounts were of people and discoveries virtually unknown to the general public, such as that of William Gascoigne, a brilliant man who invented the telescopic sight by accident when he saw a spider drop between the objective and the eyepiece, leaving a thread behind it, leading him to develop two crossed threads that would enable an astronomer to point precisely at a star, and who also invented another device (also used in the focus of any eyepiece) that allowed for measuring the angular diameter of the Sun or Moon and the distances between close pairs of stars. Tragically, his life was cut short when he was killed in the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, part of the English Civil War (he was only 24).
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book I really wanted to like, and I don't regret reading it. That said, this is more a book for people interested in learning a few more details about the pre-1900 history of the telescope than a book to get someone excited about the development of the telescope.

Overall the prose is serviceable, if a bit pedestrian. But it is uneven, with some excellent passages and some that are a bit of a slog. Up through the late nineteenth century the author presents all the major threads of the story, but toward the end the book becomes more a series of highlights rather than a survey of developments. My sense in reading it was that the author ran out of steam and couldn't handle the twentieth century in the depth he managed for earlier epochs. Recent developments in eight to ten meter telescopes are barely mentioned. He provides a superficial discussion of radio telescopes, but doesn't mention solar telescopes. Space telescopes are briefly mentioned, but their history is barely scratched. The epilogue, looking back from year 2108, is more cute that informative.

Yes, read this book if you are interested in telescopes. But be prepared for a sense of unfulfilled promise, as this book could have been so much more ...
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am a long time amateur astronomer/telescope maker/astrophotographer. I have read a fair chunk on the history of astronomy, but never a general book about the history of the telescope. Based on an Amazon review, I ordered this book.

This is a very compact, easy to read, cursory review of the history of big telescopes up to about 2000. Really, the coverage is pretty minimal beyond about 1950, although the author does spend some time at the beginning gently mocking the current pandemic of supergiant telescopes. Technical detail is very limited, this was a bit frustrating at first, but once I got past that, I really enjoyed the book. The writing style is very smooth and was effective at holding my interest.

This is what I would classify as a "transcontinental" read, perfect for a long flight across the US or to Europe from the east coast. It is also a good choice for people with minimal technical background in astronomy. Many serious amateurs will probably want more, however. Within these limitations, I definitely recommend this work.

I am now reading The History of the Telescope, a 1955 work by Henry King. See my review of that book, in a couple of weeks. Very different animal.
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Format: Paperback
This is a really fun read. The author has a sense of humor and irony, and knowledge enough of the history to highlight both. As other reviewers have commented, the post WW2 coverage is modest. I think the author knew those last few chapters would be doomed to be incomplete by the discoveries of the new telescopes being built and launched left and right these days.

I found his coverage of the pre-telescope era excellent, including a photo of what remains of Tycho Brahe's observatory. The sections on the 18th & 19th century are also fine, with a clear and careful telling of the many convoluted paths that technology was taking at that time. By that point in the book I really couldn't put it down. There's just something compelling about those bickering British scientists! He also includes photos and the ultimate fate of many famous 19th century telescopes.

I think anyone with a passing knowledge of telescopes and an interest in the history of technology would thoroughly enjoy this book.
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