The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 19 February 1998

The Perfect Machine

Building the Palomar Telescope

by Ronald Florence

This book is about the construction of the famous Mount Palomar 200-inch Hale telescope. It is also very much about the birth of Big Science, an American institution of which we've come to take for granted. It took over twenty years to finish the telescope and the stories of the failed attempts to fabricate quartz mirrors and the trials of making something so big and outrageously complex during the depression are interesting. The author also concentrates on setting the atmosphere of the times, so his stories of life in the 1920s and 30s make up a welcome portion of the book. Florence tells of George Hale, who was instrumental (so to speak) in the construction of the Yerkes and Mount Wilson observatories. His drive to build the world's largest telescope pushed the limits of his fragile mental and physical health. The author is a bit repetitive at times, though, often re-introducing a character or item within pages of having done so already. This book may not be compelling to non-astronomers or non-scientists, but would be for anyone interested in the history of giant science projects. We've come to expect larger and larger telescopes now, with the advent of advanced mirror technologies and microelectronic detectors. We forget the enormous difficulties involved in such an undertaking in a time nearly a century ago. This book is engaging and stays interesting despite its occasionally dry subject.

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