In this book, Isaac Asimov chronicles what has been humanity’s supreme adventure—the journey of the mind from the narrow boundaries of our home planet to the outer reaches of the universe. It is a story full of the suspense of intellectual discovery as one piece after another of the vast jigsaw puzzle is fitted into place, but it also has a parallel excitement and glamour [sic] in the astounding technological breakthroughs that brought the telescope from the first crude instruments of the seventeenth-century to the giant sixteen-foot reflectors of the forties and fifties and the enormous radio telescopes that are in use today.
When Galileo, over 300 years ago, peered through is homemade lenses and became the first being on earth to see the moons of Jupiter he opened a door to the universe and started humankind on a path that led to the outer reaches of our solar system, on to an exploration of our own galaxy, and with ever larger and more sophisticated telescopes past other galaxies so far away that the mind can hardly grasp the vastness of the distance, and on beyond them to what must be the edge of the universe itself–a place where space merges into time and science into science fiction.
That Isaac Asimov can so skillfully organize this tremendous body of information that even the nonscientisit can comprehend the wide sweep of the basic theories as well as the technical details that support them is a miracle in itself.
It is strange to observe that there are a number of Asimov’s books that come as total surprises, strange because Asimov is one known for the breadth of his writing. The fact is, however, that his astronomy books tend to be about, you know, astronomy—the stars, the planets, the sun, that kind of stuff. Or he’ll write a book about astronomers. This book, however, is neither. It’s about the technology that makes astronomy possible, the telescopes. In this sense, I tend to think of it along with The Ends of the Earth, another book which is fairly unique in its handling of a particular topic. The Ends of the Earth is Asimov’s only actual geography book, and this is his only actual history of technology.
I’ll admit that I love it so much in part of the circumstances under which I first read it—driving at night to Montana with a group of my friends to watch a solar eclipse. Even with my prejudices taken into account, however, it’s a top-notch work covering the mechanics of how one sees the stars fairly well. It’s a bit weak in terms of diagrams, and it perforce misses the advances of the last twenty years (minor things like the Hubble Space Telescope or the Keck telescope in Hawaii), but it’s otherwise good enough that one is glad to overlook such relatively minor weaknesses. This is definitely a worthy addition to any Asimov collection.