'400 Years of the Telescope' looks skyward

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Martin Ratcliffe vividly remembers the awe he experienced the first time he looked through a telescope as a boy in England. Those glimpses helped propel him on a career that has taken him halfway around the world and deep into the universe.

"I was probably about 10 or 11 years old when I first looked through a telescope, and I remember some of my first views were of Saturn and Venus," said Mr. Ratcliffe, director of the Buhl Planetarium at Carnegie Science Center from 1991 to 1997. He now lives near Wichita, Kan., and works for Sky-Skan Inc., a company that develops planetarium technology.

"I was fascinated that Venus had phases like the moon ... and then also seeing the rings of Saturn was just incredible."

The telescope has done more than inspire, however.

Since Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) first turned his primitive spyglass on the heavens in 1609, it has moved the Earth from the center of the universe.

A new PBS documentary, "400 Years of the Telescope: A Journey of Science, Technology and Thought," is poised to shed light on the telescope's contribution to our understanding of the cosmos. It will be broadcast at 10 p.m. Friday on WQED-TV.

The film is part of the celebration of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 that commemorates the anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope for astronomical purposes in 1609. Subsequent telescopic observations disproved the widely held belief that Earth was the center of the universe; rather, our planet is one of eight major bodies that orbit the sun with a congregation of other objects that include minor planets, asteroids and comets.

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"Science's role in society has grown and I think it all started with Galileo's use of the telescope," said Kris Koenig, chief executive officer of Interstellar Studios in Chico, Calif., and the producer, director and a writer of the documentary. "I think that was the launching of all the sciences and it had to be a major impact on our society."

Mr. Koenig and his team visited the world's leading observatories and talked with a variety of astronomers and cosmologists for the film, which opens with a visit to Galileo's world of four centuries ago. The documentary explores how Galileo's use of the telescope, a device invented by Hans Lipperhay, Zacharias Janssen and others, corroborated over time the concept proposed in the 1500s by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that Earth and the planets circle the sun.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the best ambassador to the stars since the late Carl Sagan, serves as the documentary's narrator. He deftly guides viewers through time and space, to hallowed astronomical ground, such as the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii where there are 13 working telescopes. Other stops include Mount Wilson's 100-inch Hooker Telescope near Los Angeles, where Edwin Hubble was the first to show the universe is expanding and, of course, a look at the instrument that bears his name -- the Hubble Space Telescope.

With such an abundance of material with which to work, Mr. Koenig was faced with an astronomical challenge: How can 400 years of telescope history be condensed into one hour?

"Well, you start out with three hours and then somebody at PBS says, 'No, you only get an hour,' " he said with a laugh. "And then you just have to start picking and choosing. There's a lot of stuff that went off onto the floor, as they say. The beauty of '400 Years of the Telescope,' it's not just the documentary. We also have an extensive Web site. If you go to 400years.org or PBS.org ... there's actually [more than] 70 hours of interviews with different astronomers and historians to fill in what we had to pass up."

Which explains why Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory and famed lensmaker John Brashear are not included in the film.

"In the original three-hour script, we did cover that," Mr. Koenig said. "There was a lot of stuff that we just had to pass up. That's what makes the Web [site] so important to this project."

Content that made the final cut resulted in a visually stunning production. An advanced recording process that achieves 4,520 by 2,540 pixels per frame delivers a video that is more than five times the resolution of high-definition.

"If you have a high-definition television, you will see a richness of quality in the images that has never been done before, as far as an astronomy broadcast," said Mr. Ratcliffe, who previewed the documentary in January at the American Astronomical Society convention. "It's quite exquisite ... and also, I think it will give everybody a taste of what modern astronomy is about and where it's going."

"I think it will be very exciting for the general public to watch this program and understand how we got to where we are and what the exciting news will be in the future."

And in the near future, Mr. Koenig expects exciting discoveries from modern telescopes on Earth and in space. Optical telescopes the size of stadiums are being planned and a radio telescope array will become operational on one of the highest plateaus in the world.

"Right now, the folks at [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] believe that we will detect life outside our solar system, intelligent life," he said. "When we know that we are not the only species in the universe, I think it will have profound effects on our society."

It's one more small step for mankind on a journey that started with two small pieces of glass.

Pete Zapadka can be reached at pzapadka@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1857. First Published April 8, 2009 4:00 AM


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