Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Buckets of Light

Of course, the fraction of the emitted energy we receive from a very distant star—or even a whole galaxy, like far-off Andromeda—is very small, having been diminished by the square of the distance (but never reaching zero). Imagine a sphere centered on a distant star. As the sphere becomes larger and larger (that is, as we get farther and farther from the star), the same amount of energy will pass through ever larger spheres.

Your eye (or your telescope) can be thought of as a very tiny fraction of the sphere centered on that distant star. You are collecting as much light from the distant source as falls into your “light bucket.” If your eye is a tiny “bucket,” then a 4-inch amateur telescope is a slightly larger bucket, and the Hubble Space Telescope is an even larger bucket. The larger the bucket, the more light you can “collect.” And if we collect more light in our bucket, we get more information.
One early question among astronomers (and others) was, “How can we build a better bucket than the two little ones we have in our head?” The answer came in the early seventeenth century.

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