Publishers 4th Estate have been cornering the market in fascinating little hardbacks for some while now and Panek's history of the telescope is a more than worthy addition to their list. Much of his story is a familiar one: Dava Sobel's biography of Galileo and his daughter covers the instrument's early history well; John Gribbin's The Birth of Time
offers many of the same insights into the latest findings, in particular those from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. But Panek's sympathetic understanding of the cosmological thinking of past ages is quite equal to Sobel's and more terse; and his willingness to suppose our own thinking labours under equal though different preconceptions is reminiscent of Gribbin at his most iconoclastic. "Whenever we couldn't conceive of what's out there", Panek writes, "whenever we couldn't even begin to guess, it wasn't only because we still lacked the technology but it was because we didn't yet understand what the preconceptions might be that were restricting our view."
Without the telescope, the stars would have remained unimportant to our world view and the universe no larger than our own solar system. Now, it seems, the universe detectable through telescopes represents a mere fraction of what's out there: and so an instrument that seemed to promise perfect understanding is now, after all, only one instrument among many, and our trust in it merely one of "the givens that give us away".
Panek's history is remarkable for its economy and focus, its lively treatment of historical figures and especially for its enthusiasm: "once we'd glimpsed the telescope's potential, its purpose has never not been to seek the boundaries of the universe", Panek declares. It's stirring stuff. --Simon Ings
" All the amazing technical evolution is described with clarity and ease. Panek writes about science with practised fluency. If you haven't yet gotten matter like quasars, pulsars and gamma rays entirely straight in your mind, this book will prove invaluable. But what makes Seeing and Believing most unusual is the way Panek treats the implications of history, the way he shows how the telescope's development moved in advance of mankind's understanding. To convey this as vividly as he does requires a skill just as demanding as the ability to explain new developments, namely a capacity to imagine and make clear how people saw things in the past." -- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times
"A deft and beautiful book! Panek has turned his considerable talent to the subject of telescopes, their history and how they changed our universe, and he's hit a sweet spot of poetry and science. Seeing and Believing is about vision in its deepest sense." -- Richard Preston,auone
"Seeing and Believing is a sprightly, philosophically subtle history of the most mind-bending instrument ever invented." -- John Horgan, author of The End of Science
"This is a gem of a book. Elegant, informative, provocative and beautifully written." -- Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams