History of the Telescope and the Modern Universe

Our lives are filled with technologies. They are everywhere. We live in them, write with them, play with them, and experience through them. Our world is largely a constructed environment; our technologies and technological systems form the background, context, and medium for our lives. It is hard to imagine a life that does not involve some type of tools, devices, or machines. The evolution of our human existence is based on the discovery of tools and how they make our lives easier to manage. Tools have reimagined how we view the universe and our relation to it.

The range of objects included in the class of technologies is enormous. It includes everything from low-tech handheld tools such as hammers, high-tech digital devices, to vastly complex technological systems. The philosophy of technology examines the nature of technology as well as the effects and transformation of technologies upon human knowledge, activities, societies, and environments. The aim of the philosophy of technology is to evaluate and criticize the ways in which technologies reflect as well as change human life, individually, socially, and politically. In this section I will illustrate this by examining the evolution of one technology-the telescope- and its enormous importance as an instrument of knowledge and philosophical discussion.

Old Earth Astronomy

The “Galileo affair” is the most frequently discussed case of a conflict between science and religion due to technological advancements. The confrontation between Galileo (1564-1642) and the Roman Catholic Church was centered on the state of the scientific debate at the time over the comparative merits  of old and new concepts of the structure of the universe and earths place in it. The old earth centered astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy (second century AD) laid out a fixed universe in which the earth was the center point and the sun, moon, planets, and stars revolved around the earth. This model was accepted for centuries afterward in Western thought. A year before his death, Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543)  published his life -long work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies. The opening chapters of De revolutionibus lay the philosophical foundations for a moving earth a fixed central sun, pointing the sun “as if on a royal throne governing the planets that wheel around it”. The chapters that follow include theories on basic trigonometry, a catalog of fixed stars, the theory of the sun, and the theory of planetary latitudes. Copernicus never fully explained his reasoning for considering a heliocentric arrangement and was not supported by any clear scientific background.

The heliocentric model.
This model positioned the Sun at the center of the Universe, motionless, with Earth and the other planets orbiting around it in circular paths, modified by epicycles, and at uniform speeds.

Galileo Galilei

The historical and well-known case of Galileo Galilei is both tragic and transformative. His observations through new technologies dramatically influenced astronomy and its implications. In Galileo’s time Western European culture was undergoing some basic and disruptive changes. Modern science, with its emphasis on experimentation and observable results came into its early existence in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Galileo adopted the method of observing and conducting experiments on actual objects in the natural world. Up until this new approach, science at the time was Aristotelian natural philosophy, whose methods of inquiry relied on the writings of Aristotle to answer scientific questions. At his local university in Pisa, Gallio started his new approach of observation, making several new discoveries contradicting Aristotle’s science.

For example, Aristotle had written that bodies fall because of their weight and inferred that their rate of fall is proportional to their weight. Thus, a ten-pound cannonball would fall ten times faster than a one-pound cannonball. Legend has it that Galileo conducted experiments by dropping objects of different weights off the leaning tower of Pisa to disprove Aristotle’s view. The importance of these discoveries were not only a new birth of classical physics, but also an important beginning in observational experiments.

Galileos first discoveries of planers and their moons.
400 years ago Galileo discovered Jupiters moons using observation experiments. Galileo first observed the moons of Jupiter on January 7, 1610 through his homemade telescope.

The Birth of Observation

In 1610 Galileo learned that a Dutch lens grinder, Hans Lipperhey, had developed an optical instrument that made distant objects appear much closer to an observer. He immediately saw this invention as an instrument for new observation and proceeded to construct a new and improved way of looking into our universe, the refracting telescope. Using convex lenses he created an instrument that could look at an object at a distance and it appeared larger.

This led him to a series of important astronomical discoveries; that the surface of the moon contains craters and mountains, and that Jupiter has four moons. With careful observation and a newly improved instrument, Galileo found indicators that the sun is changeable and rotates on its own axis, disproving the long standing idea that the earth is the center of our universe. Tragically, Gailieos ideas were rejected by the Roman Catholic Church and were not universally accepted until years after.

Galileo was the first to point a telescope skyward. He was able to make out mountains and craters on the moon and found evidence for the Milky Way.
Galileo’s telescope was the prototype of the modern day refractor telescope.

The Refracting Telescope

Galileo’s refracting telescope is the prototype of the modern day refractor telescope. The bigger the telescope, the bigger the object would appear to be. However, before the 20th Century there was a limit to the size of a refracting telescope because of the glass then available. Pyrex glass was a new type of glass at the time that could be cooled uniformly and was a better, more efficient glass for use in telescopes.

George E Hale at the turn of the 20th century, determined to be the leading power in the U.S. for astronomy, was dedicated to creating the largest telescope of the time. Yerkes Observatory, founded by Hale and Charles Yerkes, held a telescope with a mirror forty inches in diameter. Larger telescopes with bigger glass mirrors began to a revolution of new ideas, including that the universe is vastly larger than had been thought previously, and that it is still expanding.

Yerkes Observatory is home to the largest refracting telescope.
Yerkes Observatory is an astronomical observatory located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, U.S.A. It was operated by the University of Chicago Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics from its founding in 1897 to 2020.

The Modern Telescope

With the use of modern telescopes, nebulae in the galaxy were discovered. Through a telescope nebula were blurred smudges of light but their discovery raised the question of what these lights were and what were their causes. Spiral nebulae are more regular in shape, having a dense center and spiral arms. Edwin Hubble in the Mt. Wilson observatory looked at these spiral nebulae and discovered nebulae as galaxies beyond the Milky Way. His observations led him to question how bright these spiral nebulae are and what stars are brighter or farther away.

Hubble further  observed that most stars shine with a constant brightness, defining this theory as Cepheid variables. These stars because their brightness varied in a regular way could be used to calculate astronomical distance because of the direct correlation between brightness of the star and period. The spiral nebulae Hubble observed he also identified in Andromeda galaxy, the largest and closest galaxy to the Milky Way. Hubble discovered Cepheid variables in Andromeda 10,000 times farther away than any star in our galaxy. He concluded these stars could not possibly be in our galaxy. These discoveries dramatically increased the size of the understood universe and made the universe incomprehensibly big.

The Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda Galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth and the nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way.

The Expanding Universe

Using Cepheid variables and other methods Hubble could calculate the distance of galaxies and how fast they were moving. His theory, Hubble’s law, includes red shift. That is the assumption that half of stars are moving away from our galaxy and half are moving closer and we are part of a rotating disk. Every galaxy has a red shift and is moving away from our galaxy. In 1929 Hubble produced the theory on the expanding universe. He concluded that the closer the galaxy is, the slower it is moving away from our galaxy and the farther it is the faster it moves. An expanding universe implies that there had to be a beginning where the universe was a smaller size, supporting the Big Bang theory of its origin.

Big Bang Evidence

Ralph Alpher and George Gamow theorized there was an expanding atom which was initially hot and over time the temperature of the universe has cooled. Using new generation computers Alpher and Gamow worked on a sophisticated idea on the universe originating from the atom, stating an atom had a dense initial state and it expanded very quickly and causing the Big Bang. Using IBM computer and generating a model of our universe showed that an initial hot dense state of an atom could produce a universe like ours.

In the 1960’s Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson built an antenna to receive and send microwave signals. Their signal was picking up low level background noise. At the same time Robert Dicke in Princeton University was researching a background radiation that was left over from the Big Bang. Their combined efforts discovered cosmic background radiation which is electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe, the Big Bang. After their discovery scientists took the Big Bang as the likely origin of the universe.

The Radio Telescope

Bell Laboratories started in the 19th Century as a research and development branch to improve the telephone. Karl Jansky in 1928 was questioning what natural static is and how do we counteract it. In Bell Telephone Laboratories Jansky built an antenna to receive radio waves. He found three type of static: thunderstorms, distant thunderstorms, and a steady unknown static later discovered to be radio waves produced from the Milky Way.

After Jansky announced his discovery of radio signals in 1932, Grote Reber read Jansky’s paper on radio electricity and was inspired to do further research. He created a radio antenna in 1937 in his backyard that was used as a radio telescope. The radio telescope allowed the later discovery of quasars which are extremely distant galaxies from the origin of the universe. Their discovery was noted as radio sources with no corresponding visible object. While researching quasars in a radio telescope, Jocelyn Bell in 1967 noticed a repetitive, repeated signal. These repeated signals were pulsars that happen when collapsed stars emit beams of radiation.The term pulsar is short for “pulsating radio star”. The discovery of pulsars proved significant to astrophysical research. Studying the radio waves from these stars, scientists could now test fundamental theories in physics, detect gravitational waves, and better navigate our cosmos.

Grote Rebers backyard telescope.
In the summer of 1937, Reber decided to build his own radio telescope in his back yard. He was instrumental in investigating and extending Karl Jansky’s pioneering work, and conducted the first sky survey in the radio frequencies.

Anthropology: Technology and its effects on Society

Advances in telescopes began the more intensive examination of our universe and the galaxies and stars inside. Developments in other technology such as computers and antennas further advanced the understanding of our universe, including acceptance of the Big Bang as the origin and that the universe is not only incomprehensibly larger than had been thought before, but that it is still expanding. Technology mediates and steers society in a complex and intersectional system of discovery and adaptation. For nearly two thousand years before the Galileo affair, the universally accepted view of the heavens in Western culture was the geocentric theory proposed by Aristotle. The Catholic Church in the sixteenth century held a conservative view towards theological and scripture matters. The importance of Galileo’s observation was in direct opposition to the earth being the fixed center of the universe. The Catholic Church took his theories to trail as a clear message that these ideas were blasphemous and were to be rejected. As the generations passed, and new evidence slowly accumulated and observation became a more important tool of understanding than biblical literature.

The social construction of technology is the idea that society simultaneously shapes technology as technology shapes society. Thus, humanity and technology are situated in a circular relationship, each influencing the other. As new technologies became possible, so did the theories that relied on them. The importance of Galileo was the introduction of observation in experimentation. Pushing away from old theories based on the Church, he opened a new insight for other astronomers, physicists, and modern thinkers. These new theories would not have been possible without the new advancements in tools and their design. The creation of the telescope created a Big Bang effect, if you will, to the modern advancements of technology and its societal implications. The world was a lot smaller in the sixteenth hundreds. Before the telescope, the earth-that is, human beings-was seen as central to the universe, which literally revolved around it. With the discovery of an expansive universe, social implications about human and their place in the universe changed forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *