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Title: Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope
Author: Fred Watson
Publisher: Da Capo
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 0306814323
Pages: 342
Price: $25.00
Rating: 90%

The telescope is a unique tool. It is the only device that lets people truly look into the past. When you look into a telescope--or when you even look into the night sky with your eyes--you are seeing stars as they appeared years, decades, centuries, even billions of years ago. Naturally, your eyes only see the brightest stars, those which are a few hundred light years away. But telescopes--the kind that professional astronomers use--let you look back billions of years. A humbling thought indeed... 

As Fred Watson points out in this book, "there are as many different kinds of telescope as there are varieties of natural radiation traversing the Universe." Stars not only emit light, but also x-rays, infra-red light, gamma rays, microwaves, and more. In fact, the image of the lone astronomer looking into an optical telescope (one that traps visible light) pointed out at the night sky is passť. Today's telescopes are huge mirrors, radio telescopes or other devices that collect data and interpret it. Even atmospheric disturbances can be factored out, with the right equipment, and as telescopes progress, the possibilities for new and astounding discoveries augment. 

The history of the telescope starts way back in the past, with a little-known inventor named Hans Lipperhey. Yes, we all learned that Galileo invented the telescope, but we also learned that Gutenberg invented printing. Many such creation myths are false, having been usurped over time by the more flamboyant personages. 

Lipperhey, a spectacle maker in The Hague, somehow "stumbled on the secret" of what would later be known as the Galilean telescope--the combination of a convex objective lens and a concave eyepiece lens that, together, made it possible to see things in magnification. Lipperhey presented his invention to Prince Maurice of Nassau, the Statdholder of the United Provinces, who, for some reason, showed the device to the Marquis Spinola, who dutifully passed the information on to his superior, Archduke Albert, and a high-ranking papal official. While the rest of the transmission remains shrouded in history, this undoubtedly led to Galileo's discovery of the invention. 

Meanwhile, Lipperhey was asked to make improvements to the device--notably, to create a telescope that could be looked through with both eyes. But the telescope--or at least its meme--was already crossing Europe at the speed of coach. Lipperhey, who was interested in patenting the device, got dragged down by bureaucracy, while the idea continued its spread, to eventually reach Galileo in Padua. 

While telescopes were used before Galileo, and some were even sold in Paris before Galileo perfected his, it seems likely that he induced the workings of the telescope from descriptions he heard and read. He ground and polished his own lenses, eventually making a telescope with a magnitude of thirty times, with which he made the observations of four of Jupiter's moons that ensured his fame. But alas, as a follower of Copernicism (the belief, later proved, that the earth is not the center of the universe, nor of the solar system), he was eventually imprisoned in his own house where he eventually went blind. 

But the proverbial cat was out of the bag, and the following decades saw improvements in the quality of images and their magnification, through manipulation and placement of lenses, increased length of telescopes and other changes. The next major change--and one that would revolutionize the instrument--was the development of reflecting telescopes, that is, instruments with mirrors that collected far more light than simple lenses. 

In the late 17th century, after being designed, refined, and cobbled together, the reflecting telescope finally reached completion. While Isaac Netwon was involved in realizing this device, others, such as James Gregory, a Scot who drafted a design some years earlier, were involved directly or indirectly in its conception. Astronomers would make refinements to this model over the ensuing centuries, as this became the tool of choice for viewing the stars. The "lens race" began, as the size of mirrors and lenses increased in an all-out battle to create the largest telescope. Materials were refined, polishing improved, and distortions removed, in an attempt to get the best image. 

Astronomy would again change drastically in the second half of the twentieth century as visible light faded into the past and other parts of the spectrum became targets for telescopes. While William Herschel, in the late 18th century, pioneered the idea of "invisible" astronomy--that is, using non-visible parts of the spectrum, such as "radiant heat"--the first radio telescope was a hack made in 1932 by Karl Guthe Jansky, working at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. He discovered radio interference coming from the Milky Way, but was largely ignored by scientists. Other such devices were created in the following years, but it was the post World War II glut of surplus radio equipment that led to the creation of radio observatories around the world.  

The final step came in the 1970s and 1980s as early space telescopes (devices in orbit around the Earth) reached out for new, weaker forms of light and radiation. As we all now know, the Hubble telescope can see farther in distance--and in time--than any other telescope, but astronomers continue to discover new celestial bodies from their backyards, from radio telescopes, and from reflecting telescopes around the world. 

The saga of the telescope is one of discovery, exploration, and creation. Stargazer presents this story in its entirety, rescuing many of the characters in this long, strange trip from obscurity, and showing how each step of this process of invention took our eyes, and our minds, further into space. While it may be "the final frontier", outer space is constantly present. Anyone who looks up at the stars in wonder should read this entertaining book to know more about how we have achieved the knowledge that we now have of the universe. But, just as telescopes have been improved by subtle changes and radical discoveries, so will our knowledge of the great beyond be improved over time as new scientists discover different ways of seeing into the darkness. 

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn ( is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site,