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Armchair Astronomy



“I want to see stars; I don’t have time for books!”

Horse pucky!  A common, albeit erroneous, belief: “After all, I have this new gadget and I want to see stars and stuff.”  Ignoring the scholarly and abundant library of astronomy-related publications, is one of the quickest ways to kill your new-found interest in the cosmos and what makes it tick.  

Why reinvent the wheel?  The universe is fascinating in all its myriad respects.  Reading books, and I am including magazines, newsletters, and any other source of scholarly, thoughtful writing, is to stand on the shoulders of such geniuses as Aristotle, Da Vinci, Ptolemy, Herschel, Messier, Hubble, and the myriad of other sung and unsung individuals who have labored long and hard to compile the body of knowledge now commonly known as astronomy.

That is NOT to say astronomy is static science.   No.! No! No!  We now recognize our lack of knowledge far exceeds our current, somewhat shaky, data banks.  But that knowledge, especially including all the mistakes and sometimes just plain wrong theories, are the foundation upon which we must build for the future of science.  Many times, there are several possible explanations for any given cosmic occurrence, and a theory that results in an “oops” has a valuable place in narrowing down the possibilities.

Keep the old adage in mind: “You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been.” Our techniques largely are solid.  Our knowledge in the great scheme of things…eeehhh.

So, as you progress in your journey, plan to read, learn and rely on the experiences of your fellow astronomers as you go.  It will save you much frustration.  It will give you much satisfaction.

A Note: For those of you (us) who have Go To telescopes, the temptation is to rely on the computer as a short cut to find our target.  One then loses the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of finding the object on your own.  To track the object without taking the Go To shortcut, all one must do is to perform an alignment then be sure not to use the manual system (loosening the clutches to move the telescope by hand is a big no, no) once the alignment is completed…always use the computer direction keys to move the telescope while you locate your quarry.  The tracking ability of your telescope enables one to spend more time observing and less time fidgeting with the tools.

Following is a very small group of publications I have found useful.  It is by no means an exhaustive list, but they will help you along the way.

To begin with, before you even acquire a telescope (probably too late at this point, but still very useful), NightWatch, a Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickenson, or similar, is where I would (and did) begin.  Chapter titles are; 1 Discovering the Cosmos; 2 The Universe in Eleven steps; 3 Backyard Astronomy; 4 Stars For All Seasons; 5 Stargazing Equipment; 6 Probing the Depths; 7 The Planets; 8 Moon and Sun; 9 Solar and Lunar Eclipses; 10 Comets, Meteors and Auroras; 11 Photographing the Night Sky (somewhat dated with the current technological advancements); 12 Southern Hemisphere Night Sky; 13 Resources.  It is full of illustrations, sky maps, and illustrations and is written in plain language.  If you never acquire any other book about astronomy, get this one.  I still use mine for reference.

365 STARRY NIGHTS, An Introduction To Astronomy For Every Night Of The Year, by Chet Raymo. From the introduction: “This book is designed to be a companion to the night.  It is full of science, but only because (as the old catechisms used to say) knowledge is a prerequisite for love.  Knowing the night sky is a different thing from knowing, say, the mechanism of a clock or a computer.  The clock or the computer are finite, to know it is to exhaust its potential for exciting wonder.  The night sky is more like a human being, inexhaustibly complex and finally beyond reach.  Knowledge only whets our interest and increase our wonder.”

Each night, enjoy a quick read of the selected topic. Then check out the recommended wonder/constellation/star/nebula/double star, ect, etc, etc.

The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide by Harvard Pennington.  The book was out of print for a while, but popular demand forced a new edition that is now available from several sources including Amazon.  The book is full of observing tips, along with short, general discussions of each Messier Object.  Included also are appropriate simple, clear star charts for each object.  Of particular interest are the listings by season of the objects most easily found at that specific time of the year.

Deep-Sky Companions by Stephen James O’Meara.  To dive deeper into the cosmos, Stephen James O’Meara has authored a series of books to do just that.  All are interesting to the observer and cover a myriad of topics.  Two that I have found to be particularly useful at this point of my journey are The Messier Objects and The Caldwell Objects. The objects’ science and history are covered in depth. The discussion frequently includes interesting anecdotes to tickle one’s fancy.  They are not simply dry, technical manuals, but interesting reading that will make your night-time forays far more profitable.

I do not want to ignore two of the better magazines, Astronomy and Sky and Telescope.  In my view, both provide an excellent way to keep up with the current technology surrounding observing and photography.  Both also cover the hot topics of the day in plain language, along with thought-inspiring editorials.  I do, however, find Sky and Telescope a bit more advanced and technical than Astronomy. But that’s just me.

Want to really go deep?  Try Introduction to Astrophysics: The Stars by Jean Dufay and Gravity, An Introduction to Einstein’s General Relativity by James B. Hartle.  Nearly all of the math and a significant portion of the discussion is beyond, sometimes way beyond, my paygrade.  However, I have found that the introductions to the various chapters to include enough common language that normal people might have a chance to understand, that with a little perseverance, one can follow the basic concepts.  Great reading for sleepless nights.

More comfortable online? Try Science Daily, an up to the minute compendium of astronomy news that is generally quite interesting/fascinaing.

Finally, for a “pocket” encyclopedia, get a current copy of the USA Edition of the Observer’s Handbook.  It is published and updated annually by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.  Newly updated handbooks are available beginning November of the preceding year of the current update.  EG, the 2023 edition became available in November 2022.  They are available from several sources, including Amazon.  Shop around…prices can vary sharply, and shipping may or may not be included.