Our fascination with telescopes and the worlds they reveal spreads beyond science into culture.
Galileo Galilei did not invent the telescope, but he is generally credited with being the first to point one at the sky and record what he saw. Which begs a question: just what did the others before him do with theirs?
Ever since the great man saw and drew the moons of Jupiter in 1610, astronomers — both amateur and professional — have been captivated by the night sky. For more than 400 years, through revolution, war and endless change on Earth, telescopes have brought the rest of the Universe to us in ever-greater detail. We perch them on the tops of the highest mountains, strap them to aircraft, dangle them from balloons and launch them into orbit, all to get a better view of the world outside our own. We even cut holes in the roofs of our houses for them. The word ‘telescope’ derives from the Latin for far-seeing, and never can a scientific instrument have been so well labelled.
In this issue, Bernie Fanaroff, who as the former head of the Square Kilometre Array South Africa project knows a thing or two about telescopes, reviews a new account of their development and history. Eyes on the Sky by Francis Graham-Smith covers the entire spectrum, from existing instruments to planned ones that gather everything from long-wavelength radio waves to high-frequency X-rays. Readers with a taste for the bizarre could also check out Unusual Telescopes by Peter Manly, published in paperback in 1995. Among the weird and wonderful designs are telescopes with mirrors made from polished rock, inflatable telescopes and ornamental telescopes that double as sundials.
The names of some of the newest additions to the telescope roster — some barely off the drawing board — indicate where the field is heading. The Very Large Telescope will soon be joined by the European Extremely Large Telescope, but not by its cancelled rival, the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope.
But small instruments can be powerful, too, if there are enough of them. Maybe the future of astronomy lies not in ever-bigger adverbs but in tiny chips: a News story offers a glimpse of that perhaps-not-too-distant technology. Next month, a package that holds dozens of Sprite mini-satellites is scheduled to be sent to the International Space Station, from where they will be released. It is a test run to gauge the potential of such ‘chipsats’ to swarm and collectively gather data on missions.
Next month will also see a telescope-related launch of a different kind — a new festival at the historic UK Jodrell Bank observatory near Manchester, headlined by the French musician Jean Michel Jarre. It was scientists at Jodrell who famously, with the help of a fax machine borrowed from the Daily Express, scooped the Soviets and intercepted the first pictures of the lunar surface from the Luna 9 mission. The glory days of that observatory may be behind it, but its status as an iconic landmark demonstrates another feature of telescopes: they provide a tangible link not just from astronomers to the Universe but from science to the wider public, especially when it involves an enormous radio dish. Indeed, the United Kingdom is seeking to have the site’s cultural significance marked officially: Jodrell Bank is being considered for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Telescopes and their discoveries have always spread beyond science. Shortly after Galileo drew Jupiter and its four moons, William Shakespeare is thought to have completed Cymbeline, one of his final plays. At its climax, the god Jupiter descends to the stage, preceded by four angels. Science and culture have never looked back, or so far.
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Seeing farther. Nature 534, 6 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/534006a