Observer's Notebook for June, 2000

by John Rummel

Some Summer Reading, a review of two works

I'd like to use this last article of the 99-2000 school year to suggest to you two books that will greatly enhance your enjoyment of amateur astronomy.

Walter Scott "Scotty" Houston was author of the Sky & Telescope Deep Sky Wonders column from 1946 until his death in December of 1993. He was an avid amateur astronomer to the end of his long life. Houston's last column appeared in Sky & Telescope in July 1994 issue, and since that time, amateurs have had to scour back issues to excavate Houston's gold mine of observational knowledge.

Enter Stephen James O'Meara. O'Meara was editor of Houston's column from 1990 until his death. O'Meara began the compilation by working with photocopies of the nearly 550 individual columns spanning Houston's career. He sorted, organized, and collated each of the works and produced a chapter for each month of the year, into which he inserted Houston's colorful prose, descriptive history, and observational commentary. O'Meara begins each section with some light annotation, but most of the words in this book are Houston's, and as a collection, they jell beautifully into a seasonal observer's guide that could almost challenge Burnham's for the sheer elegance and depth of feeling that emanates from the pages (alas, it is not comprehensive, as Burnham's 3 volume classic Celestial Handbook). Upon receiving the book, I quickly turned my attention to a few of my favorite deep sky objects and marveled at the timelessness of Houston's descriptive prose. Before I knew it I had been reading for over an hour and could have spent several more lost in the beauty of Houston's finely knit web of description, quotes from other authorities, and interaction with his readers. An example from his description of M35, a bright open star cluster in Gemini: [with a 10 inch telescope]

"...the view was too beautiful to describe with mere words. Bright stars were scattered with cosmic recklessness across the field, and it was difficult to establish where the cluster's edges dissolved into the stellar background. There were dozens of curving star chains. Everywhere I looked I could see between the stars into the black depths of infinity." (pp 54-55)

O'Meara's compilation of Houston's material has quickly taken its place as one of my favorite "anytime I have a few minutes" books. It is also a valuable resource for planning observing sessions. Its organization by month lends itself well to selecting some prime targets for easy observing, with a generous dose of difficult challenges for the more adventurous. This book is destined to be an instant classic, both to seasoned amateurs and the new generation that is growing up without Houston's monthly column.

"A hymn to the sky" -Levy

To me, no book more beautifully captures the spirit of amateur astronomy that Peltier's Starlight Nights. I first read this book several years ago and still remember marveling at Peltier's intensely personal autobiography. In writing of his childhood in Delphos, Ohio, he spares few details of life on the early 1900's farm, and we wait spellbound with him after he orders his first telescope with money saved from picking thousands of quarts of strawberries. We breathlessly observe the partial eclipse of 1918 (the teenaged Leslie lacked the funds to travel the 500 miles necessary to see totality in the US's first total eclipse of the century), and are swept away again that very night as he was one of the first to note the spectacular Nova Aquila as it rose to a stunning -1.4 mag. Peltier's descriptions of his experiences are as elegant as they are simple. His deep respect and admiration for nature are woven into every page, not only for things astronomical, but terrestrial as well, for he was a naturalist of varied interests. This reissue comes with a new foreword by David Levy, as well as several rare photographs (on the cover and back, as well as a few in the foreword) of Peltier, his early telescopes and homes. If you are familiar with this book, take this opportunity to read it again. If you've never read it before, set aside a long evening - you may not put it down after you start.

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