Sunday, August 29, 2010


All of Them

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a young sprout; “Rod” was his name. A series of things and events, including a paper planisphere, a pair of toy binoculars, and a look at—if not through—the 2-inch A.C. Gilbert telescope of a little girl named “Stephanie” conspired to make him think that, of all things, he wanted to be an astronomer. An amateur astronomer, at least.

His Mama had her quirks, but she wanted the best for her somewhat odd duckling, and couldn’t help but notice he’d got awful starry-eyed of late. Despite the Smokey the Bear public service announcement running on TV that urged youngsters to stop looking up at satellites and stars in favor of keeping an eye to the ground and peeled for forest fires, Li’l Rod’s gaze was firmly locked on the heavens. And it was becoming apparent this was not just a passing phase like his short-lived craving for Gilbert’s chemistry sets.

As the librarian at Rod’s elementary school, Kate Shepard, Mama received quite a few mailings from a subscription service advertising magazines, not all of which were aimed at or only at grade school kids. One afternoon, she showed the Rodster one she’d got for a periodical by the name of Sky and Telescope. The text describing the magazine was brief, “Published by Harvard College Observatory. Astronomy,” but was doggoned descriptive enough: “astronomy,” “observatory,” “sky,” “telescope.” What the heck else did you need to know?

Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly, seeing as how she rarely said “no” to books and magazines I fancied (she did not like my fascination with Famous Monsters of Filmland), Mama turned to me and asked if I’d like a subscription to this astronomy magazine. It was expensive, six dollars a year, but she reckoned that if Daddy approved, it would be OK. What did I think? Oh, well, I’d have to think it over. NOT. I was hopping up and down.

Mama did caution that some of the magazine offers that came across her desk were schools-only, and were not available to the general public. She’d write the Sky and Telescope folks (at Harvard College OBSERVATORY!) on Kate Shepard letterhead stationery and see if they might be willing to sign a little kid up for a subscription. Thus I entered in on an extended period of anticipation, an agony of anticipation; not just because I knew it would take a while for the first issue of any magazine you subscribed to to arrive, but because I was not at all sure those demigod-astronomers up north would find me worthy.

Spring melted into a typically hot and lazy Gulf Coast summer, school let out for the year, and still there was no Sky and Telescope. Jitter and Wayne Lee had moved away, far away, with their folks as soon as school was over, due to the closing of our Brookley Air Force Base. I was devastated, and I wasn’t the only one. Those of us left behind in our little city sat and sweltered through an uncommonly hot summer. Seemed that way, anyhow. It was as if all the life had been sucked out of our town and us. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, and nobody to go with if there had been.

Yeah, I could still play army and spacemen and the ever-popular “Werewolf’s Out Tonight” with the kids next door, but somehow it just wasn’t the same. Or I could sit inside and look at TV if Mama would let me sit inside, which she wouldn’t. All she wanted to watch was her “stories,” the soap operas, anyway. I could ride my bike up to the swimming pool, but there were only so many hours even I was willing to stay submerged in chlorine.

Mostly it was sitting under a tree with a comic book or a book. I especially favored the Fantastic Four’s comic magazine, but a twenty-page funnybook didn’t last long. When the month’s issue was done, I turned to science fiction. Maybe an Asimov, a Clarke, or a Heinlein, or, if I hadn’t been able to get Mama to take me up to the library, which was way out of bike range, one of my Tom Swift Junior books.

I seemed to get a Tom Swift or three from somebody every single birthday and Christmas, and while I was now probably on the high side age-wise for the updated tales of the boy inventor and scientific genius, I still loved them. That summer I was particularly keen on Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire and Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates. Sky and Telescope? After three months of fruitless waiting, I’d purty much decided “ain’t happening.” Actually, I had kinda forgot about it.

Till one afternoon when, for want of anything better to do, I wandered out to the mailbox after noticing the flag was down. Inside was a Boys’ Life, which was a good thing. I’d started getting that prototypal American magazine when I’d joined the Cub Scouts, and, while I’d decided the Boy Scouts were not for me (I did like their Handbook), I still enjoyed the magazine and convinced Mama to continue to renew it.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the rest of the mail I gathered up to take in—not at first. Hmm...big manila envelope. Probably one of Daddy’s radio magazines. Or...maybe… One glance at the return address changed everything: “Sky and Telescope,” a beautiful script “Sky” and Times New Roman “Telescope” accompanied by a little drawing of a big telescope.

I could take a detailed stroll down memory lane with my first issue, July 1965, but that is not really the subject of this blog. Not completely. I will point out three things that have stayed green in memory over the intervening five decades. One is Questar’s full-page inside-front-cover advertisement. The ad’s text read, “A Questar…became the first high power telescope in a manned spacecraft when NASA, in its Gemini program, put the Molly Brown into orbit on March 23, 1965.” This was accompanied by a big photo of a gleaming Q3.5 with its tube partially cut away to reveal the inner workings. Man was I impressed. I was just mad for the space program and Project Gemini. Telescopes and space capsules: did it really get better than that?

It did. Farther in, almost to the back of the magazine, was Walter Scott Houston’s July edition of his “Deep Sky Wonders” column, a tour of Hercules. Most of Mr. Houston’s targets were way beyond me. It wasn’t likely I was gonna be able to find a 12th magnitude galaxy, NGC 6207, from Mama and Daddy’s backyard with my Palomar Junior and Norton’s Star Atlas. I could, however, see M92 and M13, and Scotty’s friendly, uber-competent prose changed everything (I keep saying that, don’t I?), helping me from the first to understand the deep sky objects I was looking at.

Finally, there was the back cover advertisement, featuring the telescope that for years was for me the telescope, the Unitron 3-inch Photo Equatorial refractor with (the blurb below the picture trumpeted) MOTOR CLOCK DRIVE. If anybody had told me my humble Pal Junior 4.25-inch Newtonian was capable of showing as much or more of the sky than this beautiful f/16 achromat, I would have laughed in their face. I mean just look at the thing: cameras, guidescopes, dozens of eyepieces (it seemed like) in the rotary “Unihex” turret diagonal. Surely this Unitron Corvette would blow the doors off my Edmund Volkswagen. I know different now, but part of me still wants this Unitron every time I see its numinous picture.

And I can see it again if I want. I was able to hang on to most (though not all) of my early issues of S&T despite the depredations of ex-wives. But who wants to schlep upstairs to Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault and rummage through the disorganized and dangerously tilting stacks of old astronomy magazines? Not moi. But I am able to refresh my memory of July 1965 anyway. Not that I need to, of course; those pages are locked in my mind forever. Still, it’s nice to page through the real magazine once in a while, or at least the virtual magazine.

God knows, being an astronomy writer is not an overly remunerative proposition. You do get a few bucks here and there, and you get the chance to travel to some interesting star parties on somebody else’s dime and meet some nice people and their nice telescopes. No, it ain’t like you’re gonna be keeping company with Stephen King, but, yeah, there are a few perks. Like the set of Sky and Telescope DVDs that appeared on my porch the other p.m. thanks to the kindness of the folks at the magazine. What DVDs? Why, the DVDs containing the entire print run of Sky and Telescope from the first issue in November 1941 to this past year’s, 2009’s, November number. The Complete Sky and Telescope.

Which has, been, I gotta admit, a dream of mine for a long time. Thirty years ago, I hoped for Sky and Telescope on microfilm (younguns: don’t ask). Twenty years ago, I wished for microfiche (same-same, youngsters). Ten years ago, I longed for ‘em on CD (yeah, that would’ve been a lotta CDs). But the time just wasn’t right, I reckon. I wasn’t the only one who wanted all the issues in an accessible form, but no matter how we clamored for it, it didn’t happen. For quite a while, as I understand it, there was a legal roadblock to electronifying some of the issues. Earlier this year the word began to spread that that roadblock has been moved aside, and IT WAS GONNA HAPPEN.

I’d read some brief semi-reviews of The Complete Sky and Telescope from people who’d already received their sets, but it still just didn’t seem possible. All of those hallowed issues in that pretty little box? Yep, all of them. All of Scotty’s columns. All of those glorious telescope ads. All of the sixties and seventies issues I’d lost. All of the sixties and fifties and forties magazines I’d never seen.

That was the dream, but dreams can die, they say. I wasn’t too paranoid, though. I’d been impressed by Sky and Telescope’s digital editions of the current issues. To be frank, I’ve actually come to prefer reading the magazine on the computer. I expected the production values of The Complete Sky and Telescope would as similar as possible, given the ancient source material, to those of the modern-day digital magazine, which would be great. Only a look at the disks would tell the tale, though. The set is arranged by decades, with each ten years, from the 40s – the oughts, getting its own DVD or DVDs. With trembling hands, I inserted “The Sixties” (natch) into my Windows PC’s DVD drive.

After a short, not at all annoying wait, an autorun file on the DVD delivered the index screen you see here. On the left is a list of highlights for the decade, “Photographs of Comet Ikeya Seki,” for example. Clicking that took me straight to the issue it appeared in, to the cover of that issue, at least, but not to the article itself. There’s also a search button to the right of the “year” buttons. Pushing that brings up a “find” dialog that searches all the decade’s issues.

I already knew which year I wanted, 1965. The month, too—July, of course. Clicking the year of interest in the menu bar at the top of the screen summons an image of that year’s first issue, January for all but 1941, and an array of vertical buttons labeled with the months. Pushing a month button displays the cover of that issue. To its right is a (non clickable) table of contents.

I mashed “1965” and then “July” and—bang—the well-remembered pink-bordered cover appeared. How to read it? At the end of the table of contents list at right is a hypertext link labeled “Click here to read this issue.”

And, after a surprisingly short wait, only ten seconds with my somewhat elderly Vista PC and DVD drive, there it was. July. Looking pretty, much as it had the afternoon I pulled it out of the big, brown envelope. But how to work the thing? What’s the reader like?

It’s not Adobe Acrobat, but it’s similar. The interface is, indeed, like the one used for Sky and Scope’s current digital issues. Click the right arrow button icon on the horizontal toolbar at the page’s top to advance forward, left to reverse. As with the newer digital issues, “grabbing” a corner with the mouse will also turn pages. That is cool at first, but I find it quicker/easier to use the arrow keys. Clicking a corner will also turn a page. How responsive is the program? How long does it take to load a new page? On my hardly state of the art ‘puter, wait times ranged from “none” to “four or five seconds.”

What else can you do with the reader? Most importantly, you can zoom. The image look good, but, since the reader normally displays two whole pages, the words are too small to read. There are two ways to blow ‘em up. On the toolbar are zoom and unzoom icons. Push the zoom-in button and you can zoom-in until a single letter of text occupies the whole screen. What I found most efficacious, however, was the automatic zoom function. Click anywhere on the page and it is instantly enlarged to a size perfect for easy reading. When zoomed-in, you’ll have to move around the page, since only a portion of it will be visible at any one time. You can either drag the page with an Acrobat-like hand tool or mouse over one of the four direction arrows on the page borders.

The reader is not fancy, but there are a few other functions on the toolbar. Like notes and bookmarks. I rarely use bookmarks with E-readers, but I do like notes. Notes works well with the DVDs. Add a note, and it’s still there next time you load the issue; I assume that means notes are squirreled away on the hard drive. I put one on the cover of July that reads “Rod’s first ish!”

Lessee, what else? There’s a full-screen button. Pushing it causes the reader to occupy all the screen real-estate, hiding the Windows menubar and stuff. “Contents” brings up the clickable TOC you see here (there are no hyperlinks or other clickables in the issues). Mashing the thumbnail icon—all the icons are readily identifiable and all have “balloon” labels—brings up a horizontal row of thumbnails of the issue’s pages at the bottom of the screen. Text is utterly illegible, but the pictures are decipherable.

There’s also “tools,” which allows you to enable sound, a page flipping sound, or start a slideshow of the issue on display. The slideshow worked well, but I couldn’t get sound to do pea-turkey.

Next over are the page-control buttons. Forward, reverse, go to the first page, go to the last page. There’s also a small window dead center in the toolbar that shows the numbers of the two pages currently displayed and the total pages in the loaded issue. Type a page number in there and hit Return, and you’ll go right to that page.

Last up, after the aforementioned zoom and unzoom buttons, are a print button and a search window. Both print and search work well. “Print” gives the options of printing either the left or right displayed page, or printing a series of pages by their numbers—you know, 1 – 10, etc. Search is really cool. Typing something there—I typed-in “telescope” for fun—brings up a window with the hits. Not only is the returned text displayed, so is a thumbnail of the page it’s on, and clicking that thumbnail takes you directly to the page. Swift, real swift.

It’s not likely you’ll get confused about what the simple toolbar icons do, but if you ever should, help is close at hand, if not in overly detailed fashion. Returning to the cover page via the “go to first page” button displays an icon reference window to the left of the issue’s cover. Do note that two of the icons listed on this help window do not actually appear in the toolbar, namely, “E-mail to a friend” and “Download a copy in pdf format.” The “why” of that is security, I presume, and that is understandable. While I’d like to think otherwise, you and I know good and well somebody would soon be sending pdf files of the issues flying all over the Internet if this were an available option.

What is the format, by the way, if it’s not Acrobat .pdf? Several types of files are involved, but basically what the issues are is Adobe Flash documents. I would have preferred Adobe Acrobat, I reckon, as it’s more portable; I can do stuff like read pdfs on my iPod. I can live without that, I suppose. While maybe not as versatile as pdfs, the discs can be used on most computers, including the Macintosh. What’s important to me is not the format of the files, anyway, but how legible, how clear, they are.

I will not make y’all sweat. Every issue I’ve looked at has been easy to read, though, naturally, some are better than others because some of the source material was better. Don’t judge the clarity of the magazines by the small screen shots here. The only way to grab a picture from the reader that I can see is with alt-print-screen and that yields small, fuzzy shots. The actual images are clear enough that I can actually read them without my glasses (!).

I have seen comments on the Internet that “contrast isn’t high enough;” that the text is not deep black and the pages are not bright white. That’s true, but that is a good thing in my opinion. Stark black on white would be very tiring to read. I am glad the folks who imaged the issues left them like this. Color (the interiors of the first three decades are all black and white, of course) looks good and true to the real issues. The bottom line is these virtual mags are both readable and pleasant to read. The same goes for pages printed from the disks. No, they do not look as fresh and crisp as the magazine I pulled from the envelope on that long-ago summer afternoon, but are more than useable.

“But what good is it, Uncle Rod? What good is it, huh?” Why should you spend your hard earned money in an amount about equal to the cost of a good mid-grade eyepiece for these DVDs? There are many reasons. There is a wealth of knowledge here. Not just about the science of astronomy or the evolution of the science of astronomy over the last seven decades, but about you and me, about amateur astronomy. Not just the practice of amateur astronomy, what we looked at, but the gear we looked at it with. If you are an astronomy gearhead, the ads alone are worth the price of admission.

Me? It’s a godsend for an astronomy writer. I’ve already found the set useful for research. Useful? More like “indispensible.” I’ve always referred to Sky and Telescope, but that meant attacking those musty back numbers—after figuring out which issue the material I was after was in, which wasn’t always easy. Yes, Sky and Telescope has had an online index for some years, but it’s easier still to use the search tools the DVD set provides.

As I done mentioned, you can search within an issue. Or you can search a whole decade’s issues. But what if you don’t even know which decade your quarry is hiding in? You’ll notice this “Seven Decades of Sky and Telescope” set actually includes eight DVD cases (eleven DVDs; the last three decades are on two disks each). The extra is the “search disk,” and will bring back results for any issue in any decade. When you know what you want, you must remove the index DVD and insert the “decade” DVD, but that is still one hell of a lot easier for me than dragging my carcass upstairs and tackling The Stacks.

Yeah, the DVD set is very valuable for serious work, but who am I kidding? As useful as the DVDs are, a large part of the attraction for me is good, old nostalgia. Looking at the old Unitron ad showing a little boy out with his scope, ignoring the late show for the heavens, I can almost see myself in that picture and it all comes flooding back. If you’re a youngun, this is a mite hard to understand, but wait until your 50s threaten to segue into your 60s, and then you will get it.

Verdict? Do I need to spell it out for y’all? OK, I will: two enthusiastic thumbs up for The Complete Sky and Telescope. I don’t care if you have to eat Vye-enner sausage for a month of lunches to get the price of admission together, muchachos, just get it. You will thank me later and apologize in most abject fashion if you doubted your Old Uncle. Need more inducement? If you order soon, you’ll get a sweet little bonus, a facsimile copy of the first issue, November 1941. Mine now occupies a spot of honor on the coffee table in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor.

Next time: More larnin'.

Thanks again, Unka' Rod, for a great trip down memory lane. Your "Boys' Life" cover really startled me - I'll never forget reading a terrific story about solar sail racing from the Earth to the Moon which, in retrospect, was remarkably well done. I've always wondered what issue had it - and now I know. Gotta see if I can find a copy of the story to reread now, 46 years later(!!).
Geeze, Unk. Did we have the same mom? My Mom got me subscriptions to Boy's Life and S&T when I was a kid growing up in the 60's. I swear it was in Pennsylvania and not Alabama, but my memory could be fading.
Heck, I was the only kid I knew that had a telescope back in those days - Edmund Scientific 4 1/2 inch reflector on a mount that weighed a ton. Yep, saw it advertised in S&T and had to have it. Also had the Gilbert Chemistry set. Had some fun with that, too. The things they let kids play with back then!
In retrospect, its nice to know I wasn't alone. Thanks for the memories.

Dan in Chester County, PA.
Believe it or no, there were enough of us space crazy kids down here to form a little club, the BAS, "The Backyard Astronomy Society." I'll have to tell y'all all about it some Sunday...
i bought this set on your recommendation and greatly enjoy it. it looks and reads just fine on an apple cinema display, especially when you compare the digital version to the facsimile reprint that comes with the set.

You write well and do a very good job of helping us to all find and take a trip down Memory Lane.

I am going to offer a uniquely different opinion because I, personally, have no need for the DVD version of S&T. Yes! That's right! NO NEED AT ALL! I already have every single issue of the REAL magazines! Each one close to mint condition, too. I spent a good part of my life and a huge amount of money to acquire the complete collection. I believe that it is quite possible that only S&T has a comparible collection that is not messed up by having holes punched into each issue or by having each volume hard bound.

I find that when I hold those older issues in my hands puts me in touch with the people back then. I feel more in tune with those early authors and with the original receivers of those magazines. I can very easily slip backward in time and envision the excitement of those times and of the thrill of opening those magazines when they first arrived.

Having them on DVD is convenient and makes research far easier. That I will admit that. In fact, I had intended to take all of mine and copy them onto a hard drive and DVDs just in case of a catastrophe. I guess the people at S&T had the same idea. In fact, I believe that Dennis DiCicco and I actually had that conversation at Stellfane one year. Go figure!

I feel the same way about my collection of The Sky. Holding them and reading them is a trip backward in time so each issue is, in an abstract sense, a little time machine. It isn't any different that when reading an old book from the last century or when holding something from and antique shop in your hands. It puts us in touch with those people from those times. That just cannot be achieved with a DVD.

Anyway, the DVDs do make it easier and far less expensive for the "average Joe" to have access to these bits and pieces of history. They just won't have the ability to enjoy them in the same sense as I do.

Keep up the good work and clear skies!

Stephen B. Forbes
Hi Stephen:

I certainly won't naysay anyone who loves Sky and Telescope in any shape form and fashion! The greatest accomplishment of my amateur career, bar none, was being named an S&T contributing editor.

For me, though? Approaching retirement, it was time to simplify. Yes, I kept my 1960s issues I got as a kid, but the rest? Nope. I just wasn't using them. I like to browse issues, but most of the time I am on a mission, using them for research. And it was just a pain to do that with stacks and stacks of the old ones. I hated to get rid of them, but for ME, it was time. ;-(

I know what you mean about the years taking their toll. I have actually put my collection up for sale. However, I do believe that the younger crowd just won't have any appreciation for what it is and what historical value such a collection has. DVDs don't last forever. They decay over a period of 10 - 15 years. These magazines are still in the same condition as when they were printed, or reasonably close, anyway. No DVD will ever last like they have.

I look at keeping the old magazines as a way of preserving history, too. If someone had not kept old documents we may never have any idea what was in the original Constitution, the Federalist Papers, etc. The same can be said about old science magazines such as Scientific American and S&T. Also, data files can be changed. Printed documents cannot.

Good luck and clear skies,

Steve Forbes
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