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Book Review:
Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope
By Fred Watson
Copyright © 2004
First Da Capo Press edition, 2005
ISBN 0-306-81432-3
Hardcover, $24.95 US

reviewed by H. Paul Shuch, N6TX
email paul @

The telescope is undoubtedly one of the world's most far-reaching inventions. For the past four centuries the telescope has stood at the forefront of human discovery. From its humble beginnings in seventeenth-century Holland, when a simple spectacle-maker first presented his invention to his country's military leaders, to today's colossal structures housed in space-age cathedrals, the telescope has unlocked nature's secrets. And in the past decade, the Hubble Space Telescope has brought us to the very edges of the universe, and the very beginning of time.

How did the telescope - a potent mix of art, science, and engineering - reach its present level of sophistication? The history of the telescope is a rich story of human ingenuity and perseverance involving some of the most colorful figures of the scientific world - Galileo, Johann Kepler, Isaac Newton, William Herschel, George Ellery Hale, and Edwin Hubble.

Stargazer brings to life the story of these brilliant, and sometime quirky, scientists as they turned their eyes and ideas beyond what anyone thought possible. Professor Fred Watson, one of Australia's top astronomers, writes clearly and skillfully, without technical jargon but with a dash of humor, explaining the science and technology behind the telescope, and the enormous impact that it has had for four hundred years on how we have come to understand our universe.

As extensively as this book covers the optical telescope and its applications in astronomy and elsewhere, I was a bit disappointed at its cursory treatment of radio telescopes as important scientific instruments, and of radio astronomy as a valid scientific pursuit. In its scant two pages devoted to our particular discipline, the author briefly mentions Jansky's pioneering work and Reber's first modern radio telescope, but little else. There is passing reference to Parkes, Jodrell Bank, and Arecibo, but the treatment of these extraordinary facilities is cursory at best. There is no mention whatever of SETI. It seems a shame to concentrate so completely on less than one meager octave of the electromagnetic spectrum. Despite these shortcomings, I found the book a useful overview of optical astronomy's most important instrument.

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