By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – A solar eclipse in 585 B.C. ended a long war between the Mediterranean kingdoms of Medes and Lydia when opposing armies took it as a bad omen and laid down their arms. That superstitious reaction, however beneficial to the combatants, corresponded with an eclipse prediction by a Greek philosopher named Thales of Miletus, who is often cited today as the world’s first scientist.

Lucky or otherwise in his forecast, Thales shows people have been gazing skyward for millennia – as millions more will do Monday when the moon slips between the Earth and the sun, blotting out light for a while on a diagonal “total eclipse” path that will stretch from Buffalo to San Antonio in this country.

As the ancients understood, the naked eye only takes a person so far when it comes to understanding the wonders, dangers and origins of the universe. It took centuries of scientific endeavor to reach the point where technology allows us to peer into formation of stars, galaxies, nebula and exoplanets.

Scientists at the UW-Madison have helped to make this eye into the past possible.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched Christmas Day 2021 after decades of development, is the latest in a line of space observatories to escape the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere to see into deep space. It orbits the sun about 1 million miles from Earth. Because light captured by the telescope’s massive mirror arrays took eons to get there, it sees some of the universe’s formative activity.

Webb was preceded by the Hubble Telescope, which built on the work of the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory 2, which was packed with telescopes designed at the UW-Madison when it launched in 1968. Those telescopes were built in the university’s Space Astronomy Laboratory, founded by Arthur Code and established in a warehouse next to Schmidt’s Auto Salvage on Madison’s South Park Street.

That gives a whole new twist to the term “space junk.”

From work on weather satellites by Verner Soumi and Robert Parent in the 1950s to OAO-2, Hubble and James Webb, UW-Madison scientists have helped engineer that increasingly deeper look into space.

Today, for example, Wisconsin astronomy Ph.D. Kenneth Sembach is the director of the national Space Telescope Science Institute, the NASA-contracted nonprofit group responsible for Webb’s flight and science operations.

“UW-Madison has a long tradition of innovation and discovery in astronomy, from the earliest years of Washburn Observatory to being on the forefront of developing technologies and instrumentation for space-based observations,” said Eric Wilcots, an astronomer and dean of the College of Letters and Sciences. “That innovation is motivated by our innate human curiosity to understand the nature of the universe in which we live.

“We’re in awe of a solar eclipse just as our ancestors would have been. We are also in something of a golden age of astronomy driven by bold-ideas instruments that allow us to understand the formation of galaxies like our own Milky Way, find planetary systems of all shapes and sizes, and, perhaps, understand the origin of life itself,” Wilcots added.

That latter statement may seem like a stretch until one considers the Webb telescope has been able to detect the basic building blocks of life, including massive clouds of primordial carbon dust.

Webb’s infrared telescope has also discovered multiple “exoplanets,” meaning planets in other solar systems, including at least one with methane, carbon dioxide and water in its atmosphere.

Some 2,600 years ago, the Greek Thales had only his eyes, some basic mathematics skills and an aversion to superstition to make his observations. Centuries later, mankind has tools and expertise that allow it to see deep into the cosmos. Some of those tools and people have roots in Wisconsin.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at (Safety alert: Even though Wisconsin will fall somewhere in the 50% to 75% eclipse path, wear ISO 12312-2 eye protection before sneaking a peek.)