Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology

In astronomy, technological innovations have often led to new discoveries. Galileo’s spyglass once revealed the surface of the moon in startling detail and the mysterious movement of Jupiter’s moons. Today, a new generation of eyes — flesh and blood, glass and steel — has turned to the sky with revitalized powers to observe the universe’s diverse phenomena. Ultimately, Giant Telescopes describes how scientists and engineers designed and built tools for Big Science and the effects these new technologies have had on their communities. As scientists and policy makers today are debating how to build the next generation of giant telescopes — billion-dollar behemoths with mirrors 20 meters or larger in size — the historical lessons in Giant Telescopes are even more relevant.

Beginning with the dedication of the venerable 200-inch Hale Telescope on Palomar, Giant Telescopes examines the paths scientists and engineers took to build a generation of giant telescopes for ground-based optical astronomy. The size and capabilities of these instruments were scarcely imaginable fifty years ago.

My book especially focuses on plans in the United States to build a giant new national telescope at which all scientists could do their research. After decades of planning, design, and disappointment, their wishes were finally realized in 2002 with the completion of the Gemini Observatory, two specially-designed 8-meter telescopes (one in Hawaii and one in Chile), which provides full coverage of the night sky from both the northern and southern hemispheres. However, political and financial forces determined that the United States build Gemini as a partnership with six other countries — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Gemini became a truly international scientific undertaking that spanned two hemispheres and a dozen time zones.

Giant Telescopes is more than simply a success story about how scientists prevailed in their crusade for new telescopes in the face of technical, bureaucratic, and financial hurdles. It shows the disappointments and triumphs of planning, designing, and building a modern facility for cutting-edge science. And because the roots for Gemini can be traced to the 1950s, its history is the story of recent astronomy in a microcosm

In the decades following the dedication of Palomar, astronomers’ nightly interactions with the telescope irrevocably and profoundly changed. The pace of this change accelerated and, by 2002, new technologies had helped alter the very nature of what it meant to be an astronomer. Once being an astronomer meant spending nights cold and alone at the telescope while collecting data. Today, new giant telescopes are not isolated instruments but part of a larger system of interconnected tools for research. Giant Telescopes examines the history of this transformation and explores how astronomers embraced the promise of new technologies and navigated the politics required to see their dreams realized.