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A Dive Into the How of the World's Inventions on 'Breakthrough'
April 17, 2019  | By David Hinckley

You still may not want to know how the sausage is made, but the way the telescope was created turns out to be pretty cool.

Breakthrough, a multi-part series premiering at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on PBS (check local listings), walks viewers through the process by which well-known vital objects like robots and the automobile were developed.

The series begins with the telescope (top), and if that sounds even a little bit mundane, it comes off quite the opposite as Patrick Stewart narrates the hour-long journey.

Viewers with any interest in space won’t need convincing, and much of the documentary focuses, quite logically, on what the telescope has shown us in the increasingly far reaches of the heavens.

TV fans may find particular delight in the segment where Stewart explains that the telescope enabled scientists to realize that distant galaxies are not fixed in place, but are hurtling away from our Milky Way galaxy at speeds far exceeding anything one is likely to encounter on Interstate 80.

The TV connection is that once scientists realized galaxies are in constant motion, and moving ever outward, they were able to reverse their calculations and take the universe back to an origin point. All matter then was contained in a single relatively small and incredibly dense place, until it exploded and sent all those galaxies sailing outward.

The Big Bang theory. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

In the larger picture, the telescope story turns out to move forward on a series of small, often accidental discoveries.

Ancient civilizations came up with the first telescope-related idea when they arranged large rocks in a tunnel that enhanced their view of a narrow slice of the sky at its open end.

That was as far as primitive technology could take them, but their tunnel-scope shows that early humans already understood the value of orienting activities on Earth by the constants of the heavens.

Over the next few thousand years, the telescope gradually came together from discoveries like the magnifying power of glass and the nature of light refraction.

In modern times, the pace of telescope technology has accelerated, and Breakthrough focuses on the young Edwin Hubble, whose discoveries about the heavens were so significant that the world’s most famous telescope, the Hubble (left), was named after him.

The Hubble and its fellow high-tech telescopes have provided us with a rapid-fire cornucopia of new information about the universe, including its size. At the risk of a spoiler, there seem to be trillions of galaxies with trillions of stars.

What telescopes have not yet confirmed is whether there’s any sort of edge to the universe, and if so, where it might lie. Think about that for a while if you’d like to feel your brain exploding.

Breakthrough sounds like a science geek show. It’s not. It turns nuts and bolts, in some cases quite literally, into dramatic narratives full of odd factoids and obscure twists. And there are lots of happy endings.

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