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The Telescope: 400 Years and Counting

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Old 10-02-2008
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The Telescope: 400 Years and Counting
Quick -- name the invention that has done most to redefine our place in the universe.Hint: This invention was also the most seditious, blasphemous instrument of all time, shaking the very foundations of society.The answer, if you haven't already guessed it, is the telescope. It's hard to believe that this instrument, often sold as a cheesy toy in gift shops, is perhaps the single most important scientific instrument of all time.Now that the telescope is celebrating its 400th anniversary, it's a good time to take stock of this marvelous invention.For 99.9 percent of human history, most people held a Neolithic viewpoint of our world. It was a natural viewpoint: All our senses scream out to us that Earth is the center of the universe, and everything revolves around us. It's also a comforting point of view, since it means that we stand at the very center of God's creation.Once in a while, scientists challenged this viewpoint -- the Greeks even calculated the size of the Earth around 200 B.C. -- but for the most part, it stuck around, largely because it dovetailed with powerful religious interests. The invention of the telescope dealt a deathblow to that Earth-centric cosmology.In antiquity, it was known to glassblowers that, while making stained glass, spherical blobs of glass could magnify images. But it took centuries for anyone to make the inventive leap of assembling two lenses into a telescope.Most reliable accounts place the...

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