Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Celebration; Four Centuries of Telescopes

It's raining outside as I write this. Northeast Florida is under a low pressure system that is producing a very nasty northeaster, with gales roaring in from off the Atlantic, rain coming sporadically. This is the second night of the "Great World Wide Star Count", a naked eye event that runs from the 1st to the 15th, and for the second night in a row, I'm stuck indoors as the stars have been hidden behind thick blankets of fast moving clouds. Today, though, is important not to naked eye astronomy but to a tool and the role it has come to play in this pursuit.
Today is the 2nd of October, 2007. Three hundred and ninety nine years ago, one Hans Lippershey announced that he had "invented" what would for a short time be known as a "Dutch perspective glass". He created this by placing two lenses, one larger with a long focal length, the other smaller and shorter in focal length, within a tube and thus magnifying objects some distance away.
The legend goes that two children in his workshop actually discovered this, though chances are good that others before him also created similar instruments. But no matter; he was the first to try and patent it (the Dutch authorities didn't allow the patent, though they did have him produce a number of such instruments for them).
Within a few months, Galileo Galilei, who had heard about these wonderful instruments, set about creating one for himself, improving the design and naming his version a "telescope". He would be the first to aim one towards the heavens in late 1609, and forever changed science and our understanding of the world around us.
Next year is the beginning of the 400th anniversary of this wonderful tool. The International Astronomical Union has designated 2009 the International Year of Astronomy. But in my mind, the time period needs to start on the 2nd of October, 2008 and run through the 15th of January 2010, when Galileo realized that four attendant stars near Jupiter were actually moons.
Fifteen months seems like a fair way to celebrate 400 years of the telescope.