Thursday, April 18, 2019

Breakthrough, episode 1: The Telescope (PBS-TV, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a surprisingly compelling show on PBS, the premiere of a new mini-series called Breakthrough: The Ideas That Changed the World. This episode was called “The Telescope” and it featured an object lesson in how scientific discoveries are collaborative processes and the success of one scientist in one time and place is dependent on other people who’ve made discoveries in other times and places. The idea of using artificial means to better study the sky began, according to this program, in Portugal 6,000 years ago, where the primitive people built elaborate structures to cut off sunlight during the say so their eyes could become acclimated to the dark and therefore they could make stronger, more accurate observations of the stars. The show then cuts to Baghdad in the 9th Century C.E. where a scientist named Ibn al-Kindi invented the camera obscura (though Wikipedia lists other claimants) and definitively proved that light is a phenomenon from outside the human body rather than something generated from the human eyes and beamed outward to the objects we see. The show describes Baghdad as the international center of learning and progress in that era — proof that science and Islam are not incompatible (Muslims had the early advantage in developing modern technology until they started getting ultra-religious and doing things like imposing Sharia law and getting ultra-strict in their interpretations of the Quran — the Western Christian world went through an Enlightenment that exalted human reason and the Islamic world went through what might be described as a de-enlightenment and lost their competitive advantage in science). It also mentions a plant that fixes salt from ocean water, purifies it and is known in England as “glassweed” because it’s essential in the manufacture of absolutely clear glass.

he show details 14th century Venetian art that depicts the use of eyeglasses (though it was my understanding that glasses were originally invented in China) and then moves on to Hans Lippershey, the Dutch optometrist who put two lenses, a convex and a concave one, together and invented the telescope. Lippershey applied for a patent to the Dutch government and incredibly was turned down, meaning his invention immediately became public domain and anyone who could figure out how to make a telescope could do so. The show then moves on to Galileo and how he manufactured a telescope far superior to Lippershey’s — it magnified 10 times as much and produced a far clearer image — and how he used it to map the surface of the moon and discover the moons of Jupiter. Then the show digresses to cover Louis Daguerre and the invention of photography, which meant people could actually take pictures of the stars in the night sky instead of having to rely on drawings, and on through the 19th century and one of the unsung heroines of science, Henrietta Levitt, who discovered a means of measuring not only how bright the stars were in the sky but how far away they were. After that they discussed Edwin Hubble and his pioneering night-sky photographs, from which he discovered that the so-called “Andromeda nebula” was actually another galaxy; that there were innumerable additional galaxies; and that the universe was actually expanding — from which derived the so-called “Big Bang theory” that originally everything was just one gigantic ball of undifferentiated matter and energy until it exploded … and the explosion is still going on. Finally the show depicted the space-borne telescope named after Hubble and the way it enabled us to photograph the stars without the earth’s atmosphere getting in the way. Though afflicted by the overall gee-whiz attitude of a lot of PBS’s science shows, Breakthrough: The Telescope is a fascinating look on how scientific discoveries really are made — by collaborators reaching out to each other over the generations — and it reinforces Cory Doctorow’s point in his recent San Diego Central Library lecture that intellectual property really resists commodification. Being able to claim you “own” a discovery, and no one else can use it without paying you a royalty (or, if you really want to be an asshole, you don’t license it so no one else can use it at all), does not facilitate scientific progress: quite the contrary, it retards it.