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World's oldest telescope?

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  • Stig Agermose
    Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/low/english/sci/tech/newsid_380000/380186.stm Stig *** BBC News Online: Sci/Tech Monday, June 28, 1999 Published at 21:53 GMT
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 29, 1999
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      BBC News Online: Sci/Tech

      Monday, June 28, 1999

      Published at 21:53 GMT 22:53 UK

      World's oldest telescope?

      By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse


      If one Italian scientist is correct then the telescope was not invented
      sometime in the 16th century by Dutch spectacle makers, but by ancient
      Assyrian astronomers nearly three thousand years earlier.

      According to Professor Giovanni Pettinato of the University of Rome, a rock
      crystal lens, currently on show in the British museum, could rewrite the
      history of science. He believes that it could explain why the ancient
      Assyrians knew so much about astronomy.

      But experts on Assyrian archaeology are unconvinced. They say that the lens
      is of such low quality that it would have been a poor aid to vision.

      Magnifying glass

      It is called the Nimrud lens and it was found in 1850 by the legendary
      archaeologist Sir John Layard, during an epic series of excavations at the
      palace of Nimrud in what is now Iraq.

      Upon his return to England, he showed the lens to physicist Sir David
      Brewer who thought it could have been used as a magnifying glass or to
      concentrate the Sun's rays.

      Used as a magnifying glass, it could have been useful to Assyrian craftsman
      who often made intricate seals and produced minuscule texts on clay tablets
      using a wedge-shaped script.

      It is a theory many scientists might be prepared to accept, but the idea
      that the rock crystal was part of a telescope is something else. To get
      from a lens to a telescope, they say, is an enormous leap.

      Saturn's serpents

      Professor Pettinato counters by asking for an explanation of how the
      ancient Assyrians regarded the planet Saturn as a god surrounded by a ring
      of serpents?

      Could they not have seen Saturn's rings through their telescope and
      interpreted them as serpents? An unconvincing argument, say experts. The
      Assyrians saw serpents everywhere. And why is it in their many astronomical
      reports on clay tablets there is no mention of such a device?

      The conventional understanding of the invention of the telescope is that it
      was developed in the 16th century by Dutch spectacle-makers who held one
      lens in front of another.

      One thing is sure: Galileo did not invent it - a common misconception -
      although he was one of the first to turn it towards the sky. By then,
      lenses used as spectacles had been known for hundreds of years at least,
      and it has been a puzzle to historians why it took so long for the
      telescope to be invented.

      Commercial and military use

      It may have been developed and then forgotten, or even kept secret.
      However, experts regard this as unlikely given the commercial and military
      uses that a telescope could serve.

      Whatever its origin, as ornament, as magnifying lens or part of a
      telescope, the Nimrud lens is the oldest lens in the world. Looking at it
      evokes mystery and wonder. It can be seen in room 55 of the British Museum,
      in case 9 of the Lower Mesopotamian Gallery

      It may not be unique. Another, possibly 5th century BC, lens was found in a
      sacred cave on Mount Ida on Crete. It was more powerful and of far better
      quality than the Nimrud lens.

      Also, Roman writers Pliny and Seneca refer to a lens used by an engraver in
      Pompeii. So perhaps the ancients knew more about lenses than we give them
      credit for.

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      Internet Links:

      *British Museum - Treasures from Assyria
      *The Assyrians
      *Who really invented the telescope?
      *History of the telescope

      The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

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