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Archive / April, 2015

The Evolution of the Telescope

The Evolution of the Telescope

“My parents gave me a small telescope, then I built my own, and one thing led to another. So that’s how I ended up going from being a hobby astronomer to a professional astronomer.” – Dimitar Sasselov, Bulgarian astronomer based in the United States. He is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative.

In the beginning, people’s knowledge about the stars was limited by the power of their own eyes. The inventions of lenses, mirrors, and eventually the telescope made it possible to see more things clearly. The history of astronomy is tied to the development of the telescope, since we need to observe things in order to understand them.

Refracting Telescope

In 1608 Hans Lippershey (or Lipperhey), a Dutch eyeglass maker, was the first man to apply for a patent for the telescope. Others also claimed to be the inventor, but the Dutch government accepted his patent as the first.

Hans Lippershey (or Lipperhey)

Hans Lippershey

While the earliest telescopes only magnified things a few times, Galileo Galilei worked hard and was able to eventually make his telescope magnify things till they were 10 times larger. By 1610, Galileo had a telescope that magnified 30 times. He was able to see craters on the moon and even the moons orbiting the planet Jupiter.

Galileo's ink drawings of the moon. Credit: NASA

Galileo’s ink drawings of the moon. Credit: NASA

A 1754 painting by H.J. Detouche shows Galileo Galilei displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato and the Venetian Senate.

A 1754 painting by H.J. Detouche shows Galileo Galilei displaying his telescope to Leonardo Donato and the Venetian Senate.

Johannes Kepler also improved upon the early refracting telescopes.  Instead of a concave and a convex lens, he tried two convex lenses.  (Concave lenses curve inward, like a bowl, while convex lenses curve out.) The largest refracting telescope ever built had a lens 40 inches wide.  It opened in 1897 at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist

A 1610 portrait of Johannes Kepler by an unknown artist

Yerkes Refractor Telescope, 1897

Yerkes Refractor Telescope, 1897

Yerkes Refractor Telescope, 2006

Yerkes Refractor Telescope, 2006

Reflecting Telescope

Sir Isaac Newton studied Kepler’s work and decided it might be a better idea to build a telescope using mirrors instead of lenses. Mirrors reflect light, while lenses allow light to pass through them and bend (refract) the light.  In 1668 he built the first practical reflecting telescope. For many years scientists used both refracting and reflecting telescopes, but the reflector became the favorite of astronomers.

Diagram of Isaac Newton's reflecting telescope, from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1672.

Diagram of Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope, 1672. Image courtesy of the Royal Society of London.

Edwin Hubble

Edwin Hubble at the eyepiece of the 100″ Hooker Reflecting Telescope [Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images]

In the 1920’s most STEMists believed the universe was static (unchanging) in size.  But then came along astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 who published his findings that the universe is expanding! He did not directly see the universe expand like a balloon but calculated the velocity of light spectra from far away galaxies.  (Light from a galaxy has specific characteristics, spectrum, based on the make-up or composition of the galaxy.) From these calculations, Edwin Hubble determined that nearly all galaxies are moving away from us, and the farther the galaxies are from us, the faster they are moving … the universe is expanding!

Modern Telescopes

Karl Guthe Jansky detected radio waves in outer space in 1931. This discovery inspired engineers to develop radio telescopes and other types of telescopes for measuring and mapping microwaves, gamma rays, and other electromagnetic radiation. These telescopes helped scientists “see” invisible radiation and use it to detect objects such as pulsars.

Hubble Space Telescope Is The GROOVIEST!

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 with the Space Shuttle Discovery. Since then, it has been in a low orbit around the earth. The Hubble Space Telescope is a reflecting telescope that also has digital cameras and satellite communications so it can send us groovy images. These images are clearer than earthbound astronomers can see because the Hubble is outside earth’s atmosphere and gets a clearer view of distant objects. The Hubble is the only telescope designed to be adjusted and repaired in space by astronauts.

Hubble Telescope

Hubble Space Telescope in a low orbit around the earth.

Groovy Images From The Hubble Space Telescope!

“We are like mayflies, fleeting ephemeral creatures who live out their lives in the course of a single day.” – Carl Sagan

A replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is planned for launch in 2018. There are always ways to improve the telescope, so we never stop adding to our knowledge of the stars.

Moon Dance” Groovy Lab in a Box

If your STEMist loves telescopes and star stuff, be sure to check out our “Moon Dance” groovy box – explore Earth’s moon, gravity, mass vs. weight, moon phases, tides, light, telescopes and much, much, more.  Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box, full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations and engineering design challenges. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and the engineering design process.

A groovy thank you to Oh, Star Stuff for providing some of the groovy Hubble Space Telescope images above.

On The Shoulders Of Galileo Galilei

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

Galileo Galilei
Young STEMists can learn much from the life of Galileo. Like all good STEMists, he studied the work of those who had gone before him. As he studied, he asked questions to test those ideas. Sometimes he found new, better explanations for the way things work. Every good STEMist learns from the past and tries to go further and do better.

Galileo: Groovy Ideas to Explain the Universe

Galileo Galilei was born in 1564 in Pisa, Italy. His father was a musician. Though the family was noble, they were not wealthy. In 1581, Galileo was sent to the University of Pisa to study medicine. While there, he was especially fascinated by the fields of mathematics and physics.

University of Pisa, Italy

University of Pisa, Italy

Galileo became a professor at the University of Pisa, where he taught from 1589 through 1592. He did research on the motion of falling objects. At that time, STEMists still believed the world operated the way Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, had described. They believed, for example, that the earth was the center of the universe and that heavier objects fell faster than lightweight objects. Galileo’s research, which he published in a book, On Motion, showed that all objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum. This was not what Aristotle had predicted.


Aristotle – Greek philosopher and STEMist

After his time at the University of Pisa, Galileo taught geometry, mechanics, and astronomy at the University of Padua for eighteen years. During this time he began to support the theory of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who said the planets revolved around the sun.

Nicolaus Copernicus - Polish astronomer who said the planets revolved around the sun.

Nicolaus Copernicus

We call this the heliocentric (sun-centered) view as opposed to Aristotle’s geocentric (earth-centered) view.  Galileo made improvements to a Dutch telescope and was the first to use the telescope to make observations in astronomy. He saw that the moon, which people had thought was smooth, was actually covered in craters. He also observed that Jupiter had moons of its own–and those moons did not revolve around the earth.

Galileo Galilei at the University of Padua

Galileo Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories at the University of Padua

He studied the motion of pendulums and came up with the idea of a pendulum clock. He also invented a water pump and made improvements to the refracting telescope, though he did not invent the telescope itself. Like many learned men of his day, Galileo was interested in many things and let his curiosity spur him to study problems until he came up with solutions.

Galileo's pendulum clock

Galileo’s pendulum clock

Unfortunately, Galileo’s solutions were not popular with some powerful people in Italy. Pope Urban VIII did not approve of his Copernican ideas. The Catholic Church at that time had decided Aristotle’s ideas were correct. The Pope had Galileo found guilty of heresy (going against church teachings) and the STEMist spent the rest of his life under house arrest. In 1758 the Catholic Church at last lifted the ban on Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. The evidence by that time was clear–Galileo had been right all along to reject Aristotle’s view. In 1992 Pope John Paul II expressed regret at the way Galileo had been treated by the church.

Heliocentric (sun-centered) view as opposed to geocentric (earth-centered) view

Galileo’s life shows how ideas in STEM can change.  Long ago, people came up with ideas (theories) that seemed to explain the motion of objects.  Later, when people had equipment to take better measurements or to see more clearly, they found problems with the old theories and devised new ones that better explained what they observed.  Remember we have never reached a point where we have learned everything for sure!

Maybe you will take the next big STEM leap!

Technology in Fashion

 “Science & Art were never meant to be separated, they must intermingle.” – Monica & Elaine, Groovy Lab in a Box co-founders 

Technology in Fashion

Better Fabrics for Better Living

STEMists have done some amazing things with textiles (fabric) and clothing.  Today we have clothing that changes color in sunlight, socks with aloe to soothe the feet, and fleece fabric made from recycled plastic bottles–just for starters!  There are fabrics to protect people from water, germs, acid, bullets, and ultraviolet light.   Textile engineers often work with artists and designers to make sure their discoveries can be turned into clothing that looks nice enough for people to wear.

Technology, Science, Art, and Music Together

Fergie of The Black-Eyed Peas

Fergie: Kevin Mazur/WireImag

When STEMists team up with fashion designers and musical performers, some really amazing things can be created.  At the Billboard Music Awards in 2011, singer Fergie of The Black-Eyed Peas wore what looked like a little black dress–until the music began!  Philips Lighting designers had worked with fashion stylist and designer B. Akerlund to make a dress with lighting built into the fabric.  The lights on the dress even changed to the rhythm of the music.  Art and engineering worked together.

Faraday Cage Dress

Faraday cage dress

Cage dress: Kyle Cothern/Anouk Wipprecht

More recently, Anouk Wipprecht, a Dutch fashion designer, worked with the music group Arcattack to build a Faraday cage dress.  A Faraday cage, named for nineteenth-century British physicist Michael Faraday, is a mesh made of material that conducts electricity. People or things inside the cage are protected from static electrical charges because the cage safely channels the electricity.

Faraday cages are used to protect sensitive equipment from lightning strikes and other static electrical discharges.  The Faraday dress was made of metal plates and chain mail, with a helmet that had a mesh face guard.  Anouk Wipprecht demonstrated the dress by wearing it herself as it protected her from a million volts of electricity at a demonstration in 2014 at Maker Faire Bay Area.  This same science is used in the Faraday suits worn by some electrical linemen to protect them from accidental electrocution while they work on high-voltage power lines.

A Special Suit for Movie Production

Another sort of high-tech suit is the motion-capture suit used in movie productions that mix real actors with computer-generated ones.  For example, Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a computer-generated character.  His movements are made to look realistic because a live actor, Andy Serkis, performed the part during the filming of the moving.

Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit is a computer-generated character

Gollum photo credit: Illustration by Heather Jones for Time; Everett (3); Gollum: Warner Bros.

Serkis was wearing a suit with sensors all over it that created a computer record of his movements.  CGI (computer-generated imagery) specialists then took the computer record of Andy’s movements and added Gollum, making Gollum’s movements look lifelike.

 You Can Use Technology in Fashion

STEMists can see that art and science work well together.  Why not create your own technology and fashion mix?  Using LEDs and thread that conducts electricity is one way to make fashion items that light up safely and beautifully.  Maybe you will have a career in the textile industry.  There are still discoveries to made and amazing works of art to be created.

The Electric Life of Ben Franklin

As you do your own investigations and projects with electricity, you might want to think about a STEMist from the past who was also interested in electricity: Benjamin Franklin.

The Electric Life of Ben Franklin

A Founding Father of America

While Franklin is best remembered as one of America’s founders, he was also a man of many interests.  During his life he was a writer and publisher, a scientist, a businessman, and a politician.

booktitlepageHe was also an avid reader who loved to learn about all sorts of things.  Franklin even wrote about how best to educate young people–both boys and girls.  Not only did he want both boys and girls to have an education; he also worked for the abolition of slavery in the United States, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Mrs. Silence Dogood

Though his father was a soap and candle maker, Ben was sent to be an apprentice to his brother James, a printer.  Ben learned to set the type (the letters that were inked and applied to paper to print pages) and publish newspapers and pamphlets.  When Ben showed James some of his own writing, James refused to print them.

Mrs. Silence DogoodTo get around this, Ben sent things to the paper using a pen name, Mrs. Silence Dogood.  James Franklin gladly published Mrs. Dogood’s writing until he learned “she” was really Ben, his little brother.  Ben then ran away to New York, then moved to Philadelphia, where he remained for most of his life.

The Kite, the Key and a Leyden Jar

Most STEMists know the story of Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key.  He did not discover electricity–people already knew it existed.  Franklin wanted to demonstrate that lightning was electricity.

Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key and a Leyden jar

While many illustrations show him holding the key as lightning strikes the kite, that is not exactly the way Franklin described it in a letter he wrote.  He likely used the key to capture an electrical charge in a Leyden jar (a jar used for storing static electricity.)

A Leyden jar is a device used for storing static electricity.

Holding the key in his hand would have been dangerous, and some who tried to repeat Franklin’s experiment were electrocuted.

Top portion of a lightning rod

Franklin used the results of his kite experiment to invent the lightning rod, saving many homes and barns from fires.

The physicist Michael Faraday mentioned Franklin’s experiments on ice and electricity.  Franklin observed that liquid water was a good conductor of electricity (like the wet kite string in his most famous experiment) but that ice was a poor conductor.  Franklin also noticed that heat could sometimes make poor conductors into better conductors of electricity.

STEMists can learn a lot from Benjamin Franklin, a man who was curious about the world around him and who never stopped learning new things.

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