Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology

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Overview

Every night, astronomers use a new generation of giant telescopes at observatories around the world to study phenomena at the forefront of science. By focusing on the history of the Gemini Observatory—twin
8-meter telescopes located on mountain peaks in Hawaii and Chile—Giant Telescopes tells the story behind the planning and construction of modern scientific tools, offering a detailed view of the technological and political transformation of astronomy in the postwar era.

Drawing on interviews with participants and archival documents, W. Patrick McCray describes the ambitions and machinations of prominent astronomers, engineers, funding patrons, and politicians in their effort to construct a modern facility for cutting-edge science—and to establish a model for international cooperation in the coming era of "megascience." His account details the technological, institutional, cultural, and financial challenges that scientists faced while planning and building a new generation of giant telescopes. Besides exploring how and why scientists embraced the promise and potential of new technologies, he considers how these new tools affected what it means to be an astronomer. McCray's book should interest anyone who desires a deeper understanding of the science, technology, and politics behind finding our place in the universe.

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Editorial Reviews

New Scientist
[An] insightful history of how ground-based telescopes have evolved and flourished over the past 50 years. [McCray's] tale begins with the 200-inch Hale telescope at California's Palomar Mountain, built in 1948, and ends with the twin 8-metre Gemini telescopes on mountains in Chile and Hawaii, completed in 2002.
Sky and Telescope
This is an exceptionally readable history of the 50-years-plus evolution of large ground-based telescopes from the era of 'cowboy' astronomers to the present day. Historian Patrick McCray shows how profound changes in the sociology of astronomy alternately drove or reflected the development of giant telescopes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
— Stephen P. Maran
Technology and Culture
Select illustrations, a helpful table of giant telescopes, notes, and a list of sources complete a well-written, authoritative, and important study.
— Joseph N. Tatarewicz
The Guardian
In astronomy, phrases such as 'thinking big' don't even begin to cover the situation. Fewer than 100 years ago, this galaxy was all there was but stargazers have pushed the universal population count to about 200bn galaxies so far--each with maybe 200bn stars--and extended the boundaries of the visible universe to about 13 bn light years. So a book about the academic bickering, muddled finance and international finesse behind the instruments that widened human horizons should be welcome. Even better, this heavenly topic has its share of drama and comedy.
— Tim Radford
Times Higher Education Supplement
This tale of the giant eyes on the sky that are revolutionising our knowledge of the universe reveals a fascinating piece of science policy and science history.
— Martin Ince
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674011472
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2004
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

W. Patrick McCray is an assistant professor in the History Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is his second book.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Beautiful and Cantankerous Instruments 1
1 Leo and Jesse's Changing World 13
2 Tradition and Balance 50
3 Visions of Grandeur 84
4 Paper Telescopes 114
5 Growing Pains 143
6 Astropolitics 172
7 Smoke and Mirrors 204
8 Joining the 8-Meter Club 237
9 Point-and-Click Astronomy 265
Conclusion: Telescopes, Postwar Science, and the Next Big Machine 290
Giant Telescopes 309
Sources 311
Abbreviations 317
Notes 319
Acknowledgments 357
Index 359
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