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Seeing and Believing — How the Telescope
Opened our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens

Richard Panek

Published by Viking Press, NY in 1998
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2001


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The key word in the subtitle is "Minds" as one soon learns. In the first half of the book, Panek describes how the telescope opened our eyes to the heavens and as the second half begins, he opens our eyes to how the progression began in earnest to the opening of our minds to the heavens. Certainly Galileo opened many minds to possibilities in the heavens that they had not considered: mountains on the Moon, moons orbiting Jupiter, phases of Venus, and so forth. What the eyes could see through the Galileo's perspicillum belied what our minds at the time could see, and the stretching of people's minds is treacherous endeavor, as he soon found out. But with stretching, people's minds do open, and the mind-opening exercises of Galileo prepared future centuries of star-gazers for quasars, pulsars, black holes, and a universe far greater than any of Galileo's contemporaries could have ever imagined.

[page 1] On January 15, 1996, the universe grew by forty billion galaxies.

On the next page, Panek amends his statement to say, "What actually grew that morning, of course, wasn't the size of the universe, but our understanding of it." What happened that morning was a photo made of a single spot of the universe, as small as a grain of sand at arm's length, by the Hubble Space Telescope that was focused on that spot for ten entire days. They found almost 2,000 galaxies in that grain of sand speck of our night sky, which multiplied by the size of the rest of the sky approximates fifty billion galaxies. And this was only looking at visible light. What scientists found was more light than they ever expected and also more dark. Dark spaces for the first time appeared between galaxies, indicating that perhaps we had reached the end of universe with our instruments. Many questions arose.

[page 3] . . . sometimes the best answer a scientist could want is more questions.

There weren't very many unanswered questions about the structure of the universe when Galileo made his first "tube of long seeing" by modifying a spyglass of a Dutch craftsman and turned it to familiar night sky. Planets and stars were pinpoints of light, everybody knew that; no questions were asked so nobody looked. But when Galileo looked at the night sky through his telescope he saw for the first time in the history of the Earth that planets had size and shapes and colors whereas stars remained pinpoints of light. He saw three pinpoints of light near Jupiter and as he observed on successive nights, sometimes he'd see two of them to the left of Jupiter and sometimes two to the right. How could Jupiter be moving so as to cause theses stars to dart about the planet so? Faced with this unanswerable question, he dared think the previously unthinkable: Perhaps the dots of light were moons orbiting Jupiter! What his eyes saw was incomprehensible until he opened his mind to new possibilities. Each generation since our minds have stretched farther and farther open as our instruments record previously incomprehensible data from the heavens.

As for the name by which we know Galileo's instrument for long seeing, it was given by a poet:

[page 55] It was at their dinner in honor of Galileo, on April 14, 1611, that a Greek poet and theologian, John Demisiani, bestowed on the instrument the Italian name telescopio, from the Greek for "to see at a distance."

Other astronomers were observing and opening their minds to new possibilities in the universe. One of those was the possibility that light had a definite speed that could be calculated. In 1676 Ole Römer, a Danish astronomer, noted that the times of eclipses of the moons of Jupiter seemed to change depending on the location of Jupiter relative to the Sun and the Earth. When they were farthest apart the eclipses occurred later than predicted. From that difference, he calculated the speed of light to be approximately 140,000 miles per second, getting it well within an order of magnitude of the accepted speed today of 186,282 mps.

In 1687 Isaac Newton took a leap of faith to establish his celestial mechanics, one that no one had ever considered before, when he stated: "Every object attracts every other body object with a force that is inversely proportional to the square of the distance." (Page 101)

William Herschel in 1781 while updating a star catalog discovered a new heavenly body and wrote it up under the title "Account of a Comet." But what he'd found was a new planet which later came to be known as Uranus. In addition Herschel was determined to give a dimension of space to space.

[page 106] "Hitherto the sidereal heavens have, not inadequately for the purpose designed, been represented by the concave surface of a sphere in the centre of which the eye of an observer might be supposed to be placed."

And he set about calculating the distances to the stars, which task the accuracy of astronomical methods of the time were not up to. One brilliant English astronomer, James Brady, while noting his lack of success of measuring the distance to the stars, calculated what the distance to the nearest star would be if it were possible to calculate it. His estimate of 36 trillion miles or 6 light-years was within an order of magnitude. We were getting very close. Brady then discovered the light-gathering properties of a parabolic surface and measurements got much closer. Something else also happened: Herschel began to understand that the more light one gathered, the deeper into space one could look. The increase in magnification of telescopes began to take a secondary place to the increases in their light-gathering ability. Soon Herschel was able at the age of 76 to make the following mind-boggling, for the time, statement:

[page 119] "I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two millions years to reach the earth."

At the beginning of the 20th Century the universe was one galaxy big; before it could grow any bigger it would take men like George Ellery Hale crying, "More light!" He supervised the building of the Yerkes telescope and the Mount Wilson observatory in his search for more light. And as the more light began to pour through the eyepieces the astronomers began to discover strange colored patches of light they called nebulae from the Latin word for "cloud." The first list of nebulae was compiled by Charles Messier who found them to be a nuisance. He only recorded them to keep from mistaking them for comets, which he searched for earnestly.

In the quest for more light, William Herschel's son John came up with a new technology called photography. As a pioneer in the field, John Herschel gave birth to the following names that we use today: negatives, positives, and snapshots. Photography was frowned upon by true astronomers, but not for long because a long exposure on a photographic plate accumulated more light than the eyes of an astronomer could absorb.

But even with the photographic plates the light that was gathered was in the form of images. All that would change when in the summer of 1854, William Huggins directed his telescope to the nebula in Draco and received a single bright line spectrum in his spectroscope. That could only mean that the nebula in Draco was a luminous gas! The birth of astrophysics, Panek tells us on page 137, can be traced back to that night. No longer would the information from astronomical viewing be solely visible images, but also the output of instruments from then on.

Hubble in 1929 noted from his instruments that the distances to nebulae outside of our galaxy had an interesting correlation to the amount of redshift: the farther the distance to the galaxy, the greater the redshift. The universe appeared to be expanding in all directions.

Soon the outputs of instruments such as radio receivers were being made into images and correlated with the visible images from telescopes. Pulsars produced radio waves. Plus the radios were picking up a hiss that had a period of 23 hours and 56 minutes. That is the length of a sidereal or astral day — the amount of time it takes the stars to circle the Earth. The 4 minutes represents the one degree of the Earth's orbit around the Sun that it passes during a single day, allowing the stars to complete their rotation before the Earth has completed its full rotation. It was Karl Jansky, working for Bell Labs in 1934, who first noted the hiss and its sidereal basis. The stars were sending radio waves to Earth from all directions. What was going on in the heavens? And most of all, what was going on in the minds of astronomers? More opening, perhaps?

[page 157] For hundreds of years astronomers had been playing with light - seeking it, losing it, bouncing it, bending it, timing it, gathering it, scrutinizing it. As of the mid-nineteenth century and the advent of photography, they'd begun accumulating it. Now they were even redefining it, for the time had come that further headway would be difficult unless everyone could first agree on the first fundamental source of information, light itself: What was it?

What it was, was a small part, less than two percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, any portion of which was becoming readable in our new instruments and thus a source of information about the universe in the sky around us. Geiger counters could map the sources of X-rays in the universe. Here's the list: radio, infrared, optical ultraviolet, X-ray, and gamma rays — all of them had something to tell us about the universe if we cared to look at that part of the electromagnetic spectrum. If we looked at the heavens with radio waves, we found pulsars — those dead, collapsed, rotating stars. If we looked with infrared, we found cool, very old stars. If we looked with X-ray, we found hot, new stars. Some of the objects formerly thought to be stars were found to be well outside our galaxy and radiating as much energy as millions of our Sun — they could only be called quasi-stellar radio sources or quasars, a name given as much to our ignorance of their status as anything. And the eeriest objects of all were the X-ray sources from cosmic depths due to the "dying screams" of objects disappearing into black holes. (paraphrased from page 163)

In the middle of the 20th Century George Gamov proposed a mathematical model of the universe which traced its expansion back to the very beginning. Fred Hoyle, a noted astronomer, made fun of Gamov's idea, called it sarcastically, "a big bang" on a BBC broadcast, thus providing the name we know so familiarly today. Rather than a bang, Gamov saw it as a progressive expansion like a blowing up of a balloon rather than an explosion — the difference of which only comes in the time frame in which one chooses to consider the expansion. Robert Dicke calculated that the radio waves from the beginning of the big bang should have a wavelength equal to about 3 degrees above absolute zero and they soon found the hiss of Jansky's matched the prediction. Once more instrumentation and mathematics had teamed together to expand, to open our minds to new possibilities undreamt of shortly before.

But in the search for more light, an unsuspecting piece of data cropped up: more dark! In the 1970s we found galaxies spinning far too fast to account for all the matter they appeared to contain as identified by any part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The only conclusion was that there was more mass in the universe than we could see — the universe seems to contains from 90 to 99 percent of this invisible or dark matter, whose presence we can only observe by its gravitational affects on visible matter. It's like we had been observing the eyes of a deer in the lights of our car and calling them the entire deer!

As Edwin Hubble said in 1936, "The history of astronomy is a history of receding horizons." (page 173) The world, the universe, is not only bigger than we know it, it is bigger than we can ever know it. The questions asked by the telescope of Galileo continue to be asked and their answers fill the pages of history.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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