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  • The Telescope: Its History, Technology, and Future
  • W. Patrick McCray (bio)
The Telescope: Its History, Technology, and Future. By Geoff Andersen. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp. 248. $29.95.

Historians and astronomers have something important in common. Both endeavor to interpret past events on the basis of evidence that has survived to the present. But rather than uncovering the past in archives and via oral history, astronomers typically understand the development of planets, stars, and galaxies by collecting and analyzing light that left distant sources a long time ago. Bigger and better telescopes, as physicist Geoff Andersen explains, enable scientists to gather more light and produce sharper images. And while scientists and engineers study the universe using all sorts of once-exotic wavelengths of light, the ground-based optical telescope is still their primary research tool. [End Page 789]

Andersen’s book introduces the reader to the technology and, to a lesser degree, the history behind the astronomer’s workhorse. Historians—who presumably are not the book’s primary audience—will not be surprised to find that the author does not develop a specific historical argument. However, they may be somewhat disappointed that Andersen’s research neglects major works pertaining to the history of modern astronomical instrumentation such as Robert Smith’s essential history of the Hubble Space Telescope (even though Eric Chaisson’s problematic “personal” history of that project is referenced.)

First published in Australia and New Zealand in 2006 before appearing in the United States, Andersen’s book is strongest when explaining the technical details of how a modern telescope works and addressing topics such as aberration, the correction of atmospheric turbulence via adaptive optics, and interferometry. In my view, the best chapter is the one titled “So You Want to Build an Observatory?” which walks the reader through the technical challenges scientists must deal with when building a new telescope. The book would have been strengthened and enlivened by more discussion of how astronomers actually use these ever-more-expensive facilities (new observatories on the drawing board are estimated to cost some $1 billion) and deal with the torrents of data they produce.

Other than an overview early in the book of the telescope’s history before the twentieth century, the attention to historical context is cursory and not terribly illuminating. To be fair, Andersen’s intent was (contrary to his title) to cover technical workings first and history second. Still, it would have been useful for him to draw on the rich array of books published recently about such fascinating topics as space surveillance or the sociological machinations that the astronomy community resorts to when seeking funding. The book would also have been improved by some basic checking of facts and a few words of clarification in many places. Just an example: Lyman Spitzer Jr. was not exactly “working for RAND” in 1946 (p. 110)—he was a young professor at Yale who later played a key role in championing the space telescope. To continue with this example, by choosing not to reveal more about the embarrassing debacle that initially hobbled Hubble’s mirror, but opting instead for “rumor has it” and “whatever the cause” (p. 120), Andersen leaves the reader less than fully informed and wanting more.

Finally, perhaps most distracting is the book’s tendency to wander from topic to topic with little to guide the reader. A chapter on non-traditional observatories covers everything from liquid-mirror telescopes to gravitational wave detectors which are not telescopes at all (and which, to date, have yet to unambiguously observe anything).

The focus on the technology of the post-1945 period makes The Telescope a complement to Fred Watson’s 2005 book Stargazer, which treats the telescope’s early history in greater depth. Written in a clear and accessible style, most of Andersen’s story will be familiar to historians and amateur astronomers, [End Page 790] . but perhaps it will prove useful for a general reader who is looking for a gentle introduction to more detailed and comprehensive treatments.

W. Patrick McCray

Dr. McCray is a professor in the history department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. On a clear...


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