Photography, not computers, ushered in modern astronomy. Here, its bumpy evolution is in the expert hands of Harvard College Observatory associate Hirshfeld (Physics/Univ. of Mass. Dartmouth; Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes, 2009, etc.).
In this highly illuminating history, the author “explores the decades-long bridge of innovation that transformed Victorian-era visual astronomy into the scientific discipline that is observational astrophysics.” Although revolutionary when it appeared around 1600, the telescope is simply an amazing extension of the eye, not designed to function in dim lighting or make a permanent record. The daguerreotype dazzled the world in 1839, and an early photograph of the moon, unimpressive by modern standards, created a sensation in 1851, but stars and planets remained off limits until film sensitivity vastly increased with the dry plate in the 1870s. Equally essential to astronomers was the simultaneous maturing of the spectroscope. Splitting light into innumerable hues and lines, it allowed not only the discovery that stars were similar to the sun, but also the identification of their precise chemical makeup and movements. By the 1880s, “what had been a noisome, exasperating art had become a predictable mainstream technology that would eventually recast the telescope as an adjunct of the camera” and spectroscope. Until that decade, Hirshfeld emphasizes brilliant but now-unknown amateurs (Andrew Common, William Bond, William Huggins, Isaac Roberts) who fell in love with astronomy and had no objection to the clunky new technology. Afterward, they were replaced by academically trained but equally obsessive scientists who oversaw the creation of the massive 20th-century observatories (George Ellery Hale) and revealed an unimaginably immense, expanding universe (Edwin Hubble, Harlow Shapley).
A delightful, detailed chronicle of great men (and a rare woman) whose fascination with the night sky and the technology necessary to study it led to today’s dramatic discoveries.