Wednesday, January 07, 2009

400 Years of the Telescope

400 Years of the Telescope Wallpaper
Image Credit: Interstellar Studios

Last night, the International Year of Astronomy had it's US opening ceremony at the Long Beach Convention Center here in sunny southern California. The ceremony featured a sing-a-long with George Hrab, composer and performer of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast theme song. We got to sample a special brew from Sierra Nevada called "Galileo's Astronomical Ale." And we got to watch the world premier of the new hi-def documentary on the history of the telescope called "400 Years of the Telescope" (which will premier on PBS April 10 at 10pm Eastern/Pacific; set your DVR now!).

The documentary itself is well-made, presents a coherent story, and conveys both history and science. The on-location shots at worldwide observatories are spectacular in HD, and the computer animation, while not Pixar quality, surpasses the vast majority of documentary animation I've seen recently. Best of all, the studio is teaming up with planetariums, Celestron telescopes, and the National Science Foundation to bring a roving planetarium show to many regions in the nation over the next year.

The premier was also an interesting juxtaposition of Hollywood and academic cultures. Hollywood would throw a gala black-tie bash for the premier of "Gilbert Godfried Reads the Alphabet Forwards and Backwards," while if Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were to rise from their graves and come on stage to give a talk on a new unified theory of gravity, astronomers would give them a polite but perfunctory round of applause before starting to mutter about how Albert ignored the paper they had published in 1995 on a similar-sounding but completely unrelated topic. So, I hope that the production team of the documentary realizes that the polite applause they received, along with the lack of questions in the Q&A session after the premier, actually meant that most of us were extremely happy with the documentary.

Meanwhile, last night we also opened a Second Life island, complete with virtual fireworks and some internet sluggishness due to the popularity of the opening. The Cincinnati Observatory, the oldest public telescope still in use in the United States, was crowded with well-wishers as they tried to show live pictures of the Pleiades. (Since the Pleiades is about 400 light-years away, light from those stars reaching us last night left the stars when Galileo was building his first telescope.) Alas, clouds happen, and the overcast winter skies of southwestern Ohio prevented those observations.

In short, a good time was had by all, and the International Year of Astronomy is underway. Get involved -- the universe is yours to discover.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:30 PM

    I love science and astronomy, although I'm not a scientist. However, I had a hard time getting through "400 Years of the Telescope" last night. It looks good enough (although a couple of graphics were awful), but it covered the history of the optical telescope in about 15 minutes, then went on to modern telescopes of many varieties. I also found the pace slow and it was just not nearly as interesting as I had hoped. I give it three (out of five) stars for the clean HD video and a few interesting telescopes. But it lacked history and was glacially paced.