On clear nights, stargazers armed with a small telescope can find the Orion nebula, see the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus and four of Jupiter's moons even with the interference of city lights and pollution. This puts them on common ground with seekers of the stars since before the 15th century, when the telescope officially enters the historical record. Australian astronomer Fred Watson recounts the birth, forebears and history of the telescope in his new book Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope.

Watson starts with the great astronomer Tycho Brahe. Brahe's elaborate observatory, financed by the king of Denmark, enabled him to fix the positions of the stars and planets with incredible accuracy, which in turn enabled his assistant Johannes Kepler to arrive at his magnum opus, The Laws of Planetary Motion. All of this, as Watson points out, without use of a telescope.

Over the centuries, national pride fueled rivalries between the telescope makers of different countries, or, more often, between stubborn scientists who refused to give an inch, the progress of humanity be damned. Nowhere was this more so than in England, birthplace of Isaac Newton's reflector telescope. Stargazer relates the little-known story of how a method of correcting chromatic aberration (think of what a prism does to light) was developed in secret, and how when the secret got out, a long, bitter court battle ensued. In a lot of ways, astronomy isn't all that different from NASCAR, but instead of trying to see who has the fastest engine, they call it aperture fever. It's the same whether you're wishing you had a 10-inch telescope instead of a 4-inch, or a university astronomer wishing he had a 300-inch scope. Stargazer is an extremely readable account of what makes telescopes (and astronomers) tick, how they got to where they are, and what the future holds.

James Neal Webb has a 4-inch Newtonian reflector telescope.

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