Q and A of the Day: How Have Telescopes Changed Things?
This set of queries came in from a couple of students, and we liked senior scientist Martin Elvis's responses so much that we thought we'd post them for everyone to see.
How do you feel the telescope has changed the scientific view on our universe?
Hugely! Before the telescope we thought the universe was big, but we really had no idea how big. Telescopes immediately showed us that there were vastly more stars out there than we had thought, but it took lots of work making bigger and better telescopes -- and learning how to use them. It took lots of work before we started to know how far away the stars were (using "parallax"), where we fit into the Milky Way, our galaxy (on the edge - dust in space hid our view so we thought we were in the middle), and the Milky Way into the scheme of all galaxies. It's a LONG story, and always our view widens, and is still widening. Now we can see back to when the galaxies were forming, but we have only just begun to find planets around other stars.
The telescope and the microscope, which was invented around the same time, also changed our idea of what people could learn. They were the first tools, in many ways, to really extend our senses. Now we are used to sensors that tell us what we cannot sense ourselves, directly, but this was a wild new idea brought in by the telescope. This showed us that science and technology could go where we could not have imagined going before. Mysterious forces like magnetism and electricity were known only from the Chinese lode stone and static electricity. Tools to measure these had to be invented, and the example of the telescope meant we could believe that we could develop new tools.
Do you feel that America would be behind technologically if we had not pursued the research of the heavens the ways we did?
That's harder. Did science, telescopes in particular, drive us to greater technological achievements, or did those achievements drive us to greater science? I don't think there's an easy answer. Technologies build on each other -- learn to do one thing, and something else becomes possible. The same company that started X-ray astronomy also invented airport X-ray scanners because they decided to concentrate on X-rays, and sought out all possible ways to use them. Infrared and radio telescopes started from military uses. So astronomers were the lucky ones, in these cases. But the casting of the Palomar 200-inch diameter mirror in the 1930s was followed excitedly in the news and helped inspire a generation to get involved in science, just as the space race did 30 years later. It's no accident that Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has paid for a radio telescope (to search for alien communications, and other things), or that Elon Musk, founder of ayPal, is now building rockets. These folks grew up wanting to know about space, found another thing to do, and when it paid off, they came back as science philanthropists. Astronomy pays off best for American technology this way; I believe it also pays off big time in giving American citizens a window into something beyond ourselves.
What do you predict further research with newer, better telescopes will reveal to us?
When I was a student one of my friends said "astronomy is like geography, now is the age of discovery, but one day it will all be over." Well... I guess so, but although we have gone so far past the grainy black and white photos I goggled over in my astronomy book I must have gotten in 6th grade, there's a long way to go yet! What don't we know? On the big side: What is Dark Matter? What is Dark Energy? Are there multiple Universes? (This really has a meaning!) Where are giant black holes made in the early Universe? How do they make jets move a hair short of the speed of light, and more tightly focused than a laser beam? Can we detect Einstein's gravitational waves? Closer by, most of astronomy studies gas, but we live on a rock. Where did the first solid matter condense? How did it come together to make planets? Why are there so many types of solar systems being found? Are planets like Earths common? Do they have life? And right next door: how many rocks (asteroids) are floating about in near space? Will one hit us? Can we get out and touch them, use them as stepping stones to Mars? That's off the top of my head. I'm sure other astronomers would make a different, equally exciting list. I'm also sure that there are puzzles we can't list now, because we haven't even discovered them.
-Martin Elvis, CXC
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