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400 Years of Telescopes in the Media October 3, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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Giant Magellan Telescope/Carnegie Observatory

Artist's rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Image credit: Giant Magellan Telescope/Carnegie Observatory

Scientists generally know of only one direction: forward! But sometimes it’s good to look back and take stock of what scientists have done in the past and what it all means. This week marked the perfect opportunity for retrospection for astronomers worldwide, precisely 400 years after the invention of the telescope, right here in the Netherlands. I’ve blogged about this important anniversary before, and I  wanted to flag up some nice media coverage. The uptake hasn’t been great in the mainstream media actually – but maybe I’ve missed it. Post a comment if you find a good story!

The date of the invention of the telescope, and the identity of the inventor, is a topic of some debate. The 2nd of October 1608, the anniversary celebrated this week, is the date on which Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey from Middelburg submitted a patent application for the telescope in The Hague. But this story from the BBC sums up quite nicely that there is much room for discussion, as with many scientific discoveries, as to who discovered what and when

The excellent Wired Science blog has given a lot of coverage to the telescope’s anniversary in the last few days. In ‘The true anniversary of the telescope?’ editor Betsy Mason picks up on the controversy of when the telescope was “invented” and by whom. It even has a nice picture of tomorrow’s public symposium in Middelburg. A really nice interactive timeline of astronomical discoveries from Galileo’s first observations to the present day accompanies Patrick Di Justo’s short piece from Wired Magazine. Tony Long goes back in history in ‘Oct 2, 1608: Up close and personal with Hans Lippershey’, while Alexis Madrigal looks to the future of astronomy in a nice article on Extremely Large Telescopes.

Madrigal does a really good job in highlighting the importance of disruptive technologies (great buzzword) like segmentation of telescopes’ primary mirrors and adaptive optics. He admirably manages to explain the principles of adaptive optics in just 2 paragraphs too!  My only criticism of the the piece would be that it’s very US-centric; funding of astronomical observatories in Europe has traditionally been very different from that in the US.

Psychology professor Ryan D. Tweney writes about the impact of the telescope on scientific thinking in ‘How the telescope changed our minds’.

There is also an essay on Wired by the great physicist and writer Michio Kaku. I particularly liked this anecdote:

During a recent Yankees game, with millions watching the World Series, a cameraman had some idle time on his hands, so he turned his TV camera to Saturn. Because a TV camera today has much better optics than Galileo’s original telescopes, suddenly millions of people were seeing Saturn in its true glory for the first time.

Immediately, the phone went off the hook. People were demanding to know whether this was the real Saturn, or just a Hollywood special effect. The public reaction was such an unexpected surprise that the stunt was repeated on the second day.

Genius! Feed then astronomy instead of brainless advertising!

The University of Leiden hosted a symposium on 400 years of telescopes at the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, near Leiden, this week, with some eminent speakers from both astronomy and history of science. The organisers’ greatest accomplishment was undoubtedly the assembly of 5 ESO Director-Generals (and a Nobel Prize) in one place, with Adriaan Blauw, Lodewijk Woltjer, Harry van der Laan, Riccardo Giacconi and current DG Tim De Zeeuw all in attendance. I managed to steal one day of conferencing and the talks gave some excellent insights into the past and future of observational astronomy.

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