A Country That Respects Its Astronomical History

Brazil is a land that has an incredibly rich legacy in astronomy, and without a doubt, the country respects that history. I learned that lesson a couple of hours after my flight landed in Rio de Janeiro to lecture at the Tenth Conference on Astronomy and Astronautics. Before heading off to the meeting venue in Campos dos Goytacazes, a city some two hundred kilometers north of Rio, Marcelo Souza insisted that we visit the Observatorio Nacional in Rio. We arrived at what first appeared to be an aging planetarium, but when we entered the front door we walked into an earlier time.

Sugarloaf Mountain at Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil has a rich astronomical history, dating back to the middle 17th century when Portuguese sailors made landfall on what would one day be modern Brazil. They navigated using sextants, but after their arrival, they followed the developments in Europe and began setting up simple refractor telescopes with small lenses. In its earliest days, without a plethora of telescopes, the naked eye was the primary instrument used to appreciate, learn from, and most of all, enjoy the stars. In fact, while on my tour of this wonderful place, I gave two lectures to classes of young children. Each lecture consisted of a single sentence: “Always enjoy the stars.”

The southern Cross photographed from my hotel at Campos. Both pictures are by David Levy.

Brazil’s national observatory does encourage its visitors to enjoy the stars. I was most impressed with what appeared to be a very long rounded wood box hanging innocently from the ceiling. But it wasn’t a box. It was a gorgeous old tube that, once upon a time, supported a 32-cm diameter lens, which stands displayed in a case nearby. The telescope was intended to be used at this very observatory, but the complex already had a more traditional metal tubed refractor that the staff was happy with, and which miraculously is still in use today. This metal-tubed telescope is still used for public viewing nights every clear Wednesday and Saturday evening.

We can learn much from the National Observatory in Brazil, which takes its history quite seriously. These lovely telescopes were state of the art around the world, from about 1800 through 1930. By the late twentieth century, the old refractors had been superseded by the great reflectors, which still do the best scientific observing. Currently, and now, the Hubble Space telescope, a giant 90-inch reflector built to use in space, enjoys the best pictorial definition of any telescope in the world. These old refractors in Rio de Janiero, however, still have life left in them. As long as there are young eyes and minds eager to peer through these telescopes, they could live forever.


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