cover image Seeing and Believing: 1a Short History of the Telescope and How We Look at the Universe

Seeing and Believing: 1a Short History of the Telescope and How We Look at the Universe

Richard Panek. Viking Books, $21.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87628-0

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 galaxy--ours--with 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. (Oct.)