On Fred Watson’s “Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope.”


The word science often conjures up visions of theories, concepts, ideas and explanations, rather than of the countless instruments that make science possible. One of the first instruments which instigated the birth of modern science was the telescope. Aiding Galileo and other pioneers in their quest, it has revealed to human perception celestial bodies from nearby asteroids to distant galaxies. Associated with every development of telescopes, from Lippershey’s simple TWO-LENS device to the OWL (overwhelmingly large) telescopes are mortals with dreams and problems, ideas and frustrations. The Stargazer in the title refers as much to telescopes as to astronomers. This fascinating book tells us all about telescopes, and a good deal about the men and women behind them.

After a brief look into telescopes in the new century, and after after a sketch of the last pre-telescopic astronomer-giant Tycho, known as the Eyes of Denmark, the author takes us on a fascinating tour of the world of telescopes: their forms and lengths, their stories and rivalries, all intertwined with people with genius, temperaments, and convictions. These included amateurs and experts, sisters and wives, chemists and mathematicians. As we get to know the telescopes we also get a glimpse of the human side of the telescope-saga: about Cavalieri’s pre-Newtonisn treatise (Lo specchio utorio: The burning mirror), which dealt with paraboloid mirrors and suggested the idea of a reflecting mirror before Newton,  about Newton’s adamant declaration that achromatic lens was impossible, about how lens-making monopoly drove many to bankruptcy and dismal prisons, about the humble beginnings and early death of Josef von Fraunhofer whose work initiated spectroscopy, about the sudden birth of astrophysics, and more.

As with other histories, in science history too only the very famous are remembered. Yet, the great ones of history needed many lesser known workers in the completion of their tasks. Watson gives them a place in the pages of history. Everyone has heard of Newton, but not many know of James Gregory who too had conceived the idea of a reflecting telescope and even tried to construct one before Isaac Newton. When Robert Hooke brought this fact to the attention of the Royal Socuety, it began “a long and bitter feud” between Newton and Gregory regarding reflecting telescopes. Gregory died at 36 of a stroke he suffered while observing a Jovian satellite. Many may have heard of William Herschel, but not many may know about the assistance the great astronomer received from his sister Caroline who lived to be a hundred, 25 years in loneliness after her brother’s death. Astronomers have heard of William Huggins’ work on stellar spectral lines, but not about the chemist William Miller who was his comrade on the path to astrophysics, nor about the support that Huggins got from Margaret his wife in his scientific endeavors.

The book is replete with fascinating facts, presented as a very engaging narrative on a great many people who had anything at all to do with telescopes. It tells us about the kinds of telescopes that have been built, the controversies and conflicts surrounding their design and construction, and about the location of some of the larger telescopes in the world today. Astronomer Watson reflects on his subject without refracting any facts, and by focusing on the rich history he throws much light on the subject with astronomic sweep.

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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