The story of telescope makers and their instruments, told with gleeful professionalism by the astronomer in charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory.
Watson opens this pleasing history with a little poke at his competitive comrades, who all want to be the first to discover something. For that, they all want the best telescope—a big telescope, the bigger the better. (Talk of a 100-meter aperture puts them in a near-pornographic swoon.) Watson, on the other hand, thinks the breakthroughs will likely come from instrumentation, all those attendant goodies that interpret the incoming light. This clever introduction works as a pratfall to get the reader’s attention. For now, the author must cover the monochromatic business of the telescope’s varieties, the creation of reflective surfaces, the optimal siting of the tools and adaptive optics, before he can gallop on to the colorful characters associated with its creation and development. Watson first tackles Tycho Brahe, Denmark’s 16th-century lord of the stars, but then moves back through time to investigate earlier rumors of a telescope: from Gerbert of Aurillac in the 11th century to the 1st-century Romans. Did Caesar scope the English coastline? And what was up with the Assyrians and their crystals, some 2,750 years ago? Then it’s back to recorded history with the well-known crew of Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, William Herschel, as well as such less-familiar figures like the Arab physicist Alhazen, James Gregory of St. Andrews, 17th-century Holland’s lens craftsmen, and many curious, cranky others. Despite the bitterness and beard-pulling, the public controversies over who had the first design and the campaigns of vilification, these characters don’t fail to gratify; indeed, their bickering casts them in a very enjoyable, human light. Finally, Watson tackles the less sexy radio telescopes, then the very sexy space-borne telescopes like the Hubble, all the while keeping his light touch of humor: “. . . quasars are the wildly energetic cores of delinquent young galaxies.”
A fine piece of science writing, from an author as intelligibly capable as Brian Greene or Richard Dawkins.