Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Telescope Is Born

In 1608, lens makers in the Netherlands discovered that if they mounted one lens at either end of a tube and adjusted the distance between the lenses, the lens that you put to your eye would magnify an image focused by the lens at the far end of the tube. In effect, the lens at the far end of the tube gathered and concentrated (focused) more light energy than the eye could do on its own. The lens near the eye enlarged to various degrees that concentrated image. This world-changing invention was dubbed a telescope.

The word telescope comes from Greek roots meaning “far-seeing.” Optical telescopes are arrangements of lenses and/or mirrors designed to gather visible light efficiently enough to enhance observation of distant objects and phenomena. Many, perhaps most, inventions take time to gain acceptance. Typically, there is a lapse of more than a few years between the invention and its practical application. Not so with the telescope.

By 1609, within a year after the first telescopes appeared, the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei demonstrated their significance in military matters (seeing a distant naval foe), and was soon using them to explore the heavens. The largest of his instruments was quite small, with only modest magnifying power, but, as we’ve seen in the preceding chapter, Galileo was able to use this tool to describe the valleys and mountains on the Moon, to observe the phases of Venus, and to identify the four largest moons of Jupiter.

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