Observational astronomy

My favorite hobby, but not a book category that I frequently read. There are some gems here though.

Last updated 12/15/02


365 Starry Nights : An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year by Chet Raymo -- an introductory level book on astronomy organized by the calendar with a brief essay for every day of the year. Raymo gives a guided tour of the night sky, spending several nights on each topic, and covers such topics as star formation, galaxy clusters, and some of the weightier questions of the universe.

40 Nights to Knowing the Sky : A Night-By-Night Skywatching Primer by Fred Schaaf -- an excellent and well-rounded introduction to observation astronomy for beginners, but contains much for seasoned observers as well. Schaff is the columnist for Sky and Telescope and his writings have always made me want to go out and look for the things he talks about.

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide by Terrence Dickinson(Preface), Alan Dyer (Preface)

Burnham's Celestial Handbook : An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System by Robert Burnham -- What can be said about this three-volume classic that hasn't been said thousands of times before? Burnham's combination of history, poetry, and science are captivating and enthralling. Though some of the science is no longer up to date, remember, you're not writing your dissertation, you're sharing the wonder of the night sky with a guy who's seen everything and done your homework for you. A timeless classic.

Deep Sky Wonders by Walter Scott Houston and Stephen James O'Meara -- Adapted from Houston's columns in Sky & Telescope magazine, selections and commentary by O'Meara, 1999 Sky Publishing Corporation. -- Walter Scott "Scotty" Houston is a name many astronomers know well. Author of the Sky & Telescope Deep Sky Wonders column from 1946 until his death in December of 1993. He was a passionate 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 has been on the staff of Sky & Telescope magazine since the late 70's, and 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 challenge Burnham's for the sheer elegance and depth of feeling that emanates from the pages. 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 the words of his readers. An example from his description of NGC2403, a little known but beautiful galaxy in Camelopardis:

My 4-inch Clark refractor shows it as a lovely gem. I logged it as an "ocean of turbulence and detail" as seen with a 10-inch reflector under dark Kansas skies in the 1950's. In 1992 I saw it with a 20-inch telescope from the Florida Keys -- a view that transformed it into a hurricane of cosmic chaos. (pp 28-29)

O'Meara's compilation of Houston's works has quickly taken its place as one of my favorite cloudy night books. It is also a valuable resource for planning observing sessions. It's 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.

Eclipse!: The What, Where, When, Why, and How Guide to Watching Solar and Lunar Eclipses by Philip S. Harrington

An Intimate Look at the Night Sky by Chet Raymo

Raymo's latest book is not a star atlas designed to be carried out-of-doors under a dark night sky. Though it has star maps (arranged by season), it is clearly not that kind of guide to the night sky. Raymo hints at his motivation on page X of the introduction.

"We spend out evenings indoors in front of the television or computer monitor, oblivious of the beauty and terror of the celestial abyss." Raymo's intent is to reintroduce us to that beauty and terror; to renew our (a collective "our;" the human race) intimacy with the night sky.

Organizationally, the 12 chapters of the book are arranged into four broad sections by season. Each section begins with several all-sky charts introducing us to the major constellations of that season. The chapters associated with the four sections delve deeper, covering such topics as the distances to stars, eclipses, comets, meteor showers, etc.

The major attraction of this book is not the science, though the science is accurate and delivered in digestible portions. The major attraction of "Night Sky" is the way Raymo delivers the content: with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, with a deep respect and secular appreciation for the beauty of the heavens. His blend of science with poetry, history, culture, and music is smooth and never forced.

Seasoned Raymo readers will note that he has recycled much of his material from earlier (and arguably better) books, but that should not dissuade. Night Sky contains the best of Raymo's naturalist yearnings for the ineffable attraction of things celestial. As he discusses the "usual suspects" (Hubble Deep Field, the attrition of stars due to light pollution, etc.), he is convincing in his deep sense of awe and humility. He has an enviable ability to turn a phrase and communicate via allegory. His polished presentation of the allegory of an island of knowledge in a sea of mystery is beautiful. This piece first appeared in "Skeptics and True Believers" and is presented in this book in a more abbreviated form. It's his answer to those who think that science removes the mystery and romance from life.

In summary, I recommend this book. My highest recommendation is to those who have not read Raymo before. If you are new to this author, read this book. Then be ready to move on to "The Soul of the Night," "Natural Prayers," or "Skeptics and True Believers." If you have already read Raymo's best, you'll still enjoy "Intimate Look," but perhaps for different reasons. Raymo is a kindred spirit to all who appreciate the simple pleasures of gazing at the Pleiades through binoculars, or watching a sunset, or huddling in a blanket while waiting for Perseid meteors. This book captures that spirit.

Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril by Timothy Ferris (Simon & Schuster, 2002)

The publication of a new book by an author of Timothy Ferris' stature should pique the interest of most amateur astronomers. Seeing in the Dark is exceptional in this regard, since the book is all about amateur astronomers.

Ferris, an avid amateur observer himself, has spent the last few years visiting some prominent amateur astronomers, following them as they engage in what amounts to sophisticated research (for free), going to their star parties, looking at their photos, and just generally learning their stories. Those stories are collected in his new book “Seeing in the Dark,” along with Ferris' usual assemblage of science, storytelling, history, and culture.

As usual, Ferris has a knack for sounding quotable, as in his description of a total solar eclipse. I've read countless accounts of the powerful visual experience of viewing totality, and Ferris ranks among the best in terms of capturing the raw mix of terror and fascination: "Suddenly the sky collapsed into darkness and a dozen bright stars appeared. In their midst hung an awful, black ball, rimmed in ruby red and surrounded by the doomsday glow of the gray corona. No photograph can do justice to this appalling sight: The dynamic range from bright to dark is too great, and the colors are literally unearthly. I staggered back a few steps, like a drunken man...."

The amateur observers that Ferris highlights will be familiar to readers of popular astronomy publications: Jack Newton, Stephen James O'Meara, Don Parker, David Levy, and many more. But few have heard the anecdotes told here, of the personal motivations and triumphs of a handful of legendary sky gazers. There's even a conversation with Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen. How many amateurs know that May has a college degree in mathematics and astronomy, or that Queen's little known but outstanding acoustic song '39' is about relativistic time dilation?

There's a lot of good science in this book as well. The chapter on the moon contains a wonderful explanation of the tides on Earth, as well as the best summary I've ever read of the various theories about the "moon size" illusion that makes the moon seem huge when seen close to the horizon.

Ferris' previous books have established him as a solid popularizer of science and he continues that tradition with Seeing in the Dark. It's an easy blend of history, science and personal experience that is a pleasure to read. I highly recommend this book.

Touring the Universe Through Binoculars : A Complete Astronomer's Guidebook by Philip S. Harrington, Phillip S. Harrington

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