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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!

Sir Isaac Newton: Groovy In His Own Way

Sir Isaac Newton—about his life, said it best, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sir Isaac Newton: Groovy In His Own Way

Many STEMists can identify with Sir Isaac Newton.  Like any modern-day STEMist, Sir Isaac Newton was driven by investigation and a quest for truth—wanting to know how things work and why they work. And, if he found no answer, then he created a way to find one, such as when he developed integral and differential calculus to help determine why planets have an elliptical orbit.

Young Sir Isaac Newton

Newton was born on January 4, 1643, in Woolsthrope, Lincolnshire, England.  Sadly, Isaac Newton never knew his father, who died just three months before Newton was born.

Young Sir Isaac NewtonSoon after, his mother remarried and left Newton with his grandparents. In his preteen years, Newton lived with a local apothecary (pharmacist) where he learned about the fascinating world of chemistry.   It was after her second husband died that Newton’s mother returned for him, along with three half-siblings.  His mother pulled him out of school so he could be a farmer, just as his father was.  Newton, however, found farming to be dull, and he did not do it well.

Universal Law of Gravitation and Laws of Motion

When he was 18 years old, Newton found his passion for mathematics, astronomy, physics and optics while he attended Cambridge University. As time passed, Isaac Newton made many discoveries in each of his passions. However, he is most noted for discovering the Universal Law of Gravitation and Laws of Motion, as published in the 1687, in “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” where he explains:

  • Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac NewtonThe first law (law of inertia) – “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”
  • The second law states that acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass – therefore, the greater the mass of the object, the greater the force required to accelerate it.
  • The third law – “for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.”

And, although these ideas are centuries old, they are still relevant today, as Neil deGrasse Tyson,  American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, explains in his video with Big Think:

A Career in Mechanical Engineering

So, how would groovy STEMists of Newtonian thinking choose a career path?  Mechanical engineering as a career will give STEMists many options of industries and type of work to choose.  Mechanical engineers work mostly in engineering services, research and development, manufacturing industries, and the federal government. They design, develop, build, and test mechanical and thermal devices, including tools, engines and machines.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for mechanical engineers was $80,580 (May 2012). STEMists who become mechanical engineers can work in various engineering industries, including:

Women in mechanical engineering

Gretchen Christenson, KU sr. studying mechanical engineering is on the chassis team of the KU Formula car team, a mechanical engineering senior design project. Photo courtesy: LJWorld.com


  • Aerospace– designs, manufactures, researches, operates and maintains aircraft
  • Automotive– designs, manufactures, distributes and markets motor vehicles
  • Chemical– covers oil companies, chemicals manufacturers and the businesses that support them
  • Construction– designs and builds infrastructure, buildings and buildings services such as heating and ventilation
  • Consumer goods industry– manufactures products such as household cleaning items, personal hygiene goods and convenience foods
  • Defense – provides equipment, support and services for the armed forces and national security
  • Electronics – designs and manufactures components and installs equipment for various engineering sectors
  • Marine– develops and helps operate boats/ships
  • Materials and metals– develop new materials and manufacture components or end products
  • Pharmaceuticals – develops and manufactures drugs/medication
  • Rail– designs, constructs, manages and maintains rail system components from trains and tracks to electrical power systems and train control systems
  • Utilities – helps supply power, water, waste management and telecoms.

Mechanical engineers are not tied to the industries above. They also can find themselves working in finance, information technology and education.  Or, Groovy STEMists may land a job on Mars through the Mars One mission plan!  By 2024, the plan will set up an outpost where human crew will live and work.  The Mars colony will need workers who have the skills to build and maintain transit vehicles and rovers, life support units that generate energy, water and breathable air, and more!

Mars 1 Mission

Get your STEMists on their way to achieving Newtonian grooviness with a Groovy Lab in a Box monthly-themed subscription.  Your STEMists will try their hand at mechanical engineering, and explore more of Newton’s Third Law with this month’s “Pull Your Weight” box. Order your Groovy box today!

4 Groovy Ways to Teach Newton’s 3rd Law

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Teaching Newton's Third Law of Motion

Although the explanation of the law is simple, STEMists often find the concept hard to comprehend. How do you demonstrate this law to your STEMists?

Check out these 4 groovy ways to teach your STEMists about Newton’s 3rd law.

Play with Marbles

Using marbles to teach Third Law of Motion

An easy activity that shows the law of physics at work is to play with marbles.  Ask each STEMist to choose two marbles and set one marble at the end of a flat surface.  Then, ask your STEMists to push the second marble into the first marble (at the end of the surface). Observe what happens when the two marbles collide—notice the reaction to the collision. Encourage your STEMists to talk about the transfer of energy from one marble to the next.  Also discuss that like the marble, any object hit with another would react to the action.

LEGO Balloon Car

LEGO car

A favorite teaching tool, LEGOs continually find their place in STEM-related activities! The LEGO balloon car activity will not only entertain your STEMists, it will demonstrate Newton’s 3rd law!  Ask your STEMists to build a car with LEGOs that includes an area on the back of the car to secure (between two LEGOs) the mouth of a balloon.  Add air to the balloon by inserting a straw in the balloon mouth, then blow into the straw.  Watch what happens when you release the straw from the balloon—as the air releases from the balloon, the car moves in the opposite direction.

If LEGOs are not available, you can design a paper rocket car that will demonstrate the same principle law of motion— for every force there is a reaction force that is equal in size, but opposite in direction.

Pop Tops

Pop top

Grab 2 film canisters, a seltzer tablet (Alka-Seltzer), water and a pan with sides (2.5 cm/1 inch or higher).  Use a permanent marker to draw a line down the center of the pan. Then, pour water into each canister until half full, and equal to each other.  Cap the first canister and lay it on its side with the cap facing toward the line on the pan.  Then, work quickly to add 1/2 of an Alka-Seltzer tablet to the second canister. Immediately cap the canister and lay it cap-side at the center line in the pan, facing the other canister.  Watch as the seltzer tablet creates enough gas to fill the canister and cause it to pop its top, and push against the first canister.  Your STEMists will witness equal force affecting each canister, causing them to move in opposite, mirrored direction.

Observe a Bird in Flight

Birds and Third Law of Motion

Take your STEMists outdoors to observe Newton’s 3rd law in action!  Watch a bird as it takes flight. Consider the flying motion of the bird and use of its wings as they push the air downwards.  The downward motion reacts to the opposite force of the air pushing the bird upwards. This makes perfect sense if your STEMists can remember that for every action, there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction – therefore, the action-reaction force makes it possible for the bird to fly.

For more ways to learn about science and physics, check out next month’s pulley-themed “Pull Your Weight” Groovy Lab in a Box.  Your STEMists will become engaged in the engineering design process as they work through investigations and the custom retro-style Groovy Lab notebook!

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