Sunday, May 02, 2010


The Trouble with the Magazines III: Astronomy Magazine

What does your old Unk remember of the 1970s? He don’t remember much of the early 70s at all, which oughta tell you something. The mid-late 70s? Disco balls, pet rocks, mood rings, and Astronomy Magazine. Well do I recall when I first encountered that publication in 1973. I was gobsmacked. In the days before the Internet, isolated as I was down here in The Swamp, I was almost always in the dark about the goins-on in the larger world of amateur astronomy. I had grown accustomed to the idea that there was ONE amateur astronomy rag, and assumed there would always be just one. Now, suddenly, there were two.

Anyways… Fact is, I don’t know nearly as much about Astronomy as I do Sky and Telescope. I’ve never worked for the Wisconsin folks, and the only member of the current staff I’ve even met is Editor Dave Eicher. I have, however, been either subscribing to Astronomy or buying it off the newsstand since that first issue hit the streets thirty-seven years ago this August, and have at least been an interested long-term observer.

Almost from the start, Astronomy found a niche. Publisher/Editor Stephen Walther wasn’t afraid to print plenty of big, full-color astro-images and artwork. No doubt about it, it was “The World’s Most Beautiful Astronomy Magazine” as it said right on the masthead for years and years.

Astronomy got off the ground in a hurry, and seemed to go from strength to strength. The mag was undeniably eye-catching, and enjoyed very good newsstand distribution. Hell, I could buy it in the dadgummed Air Force Base Exchange. Even the sad, too-early death of Walther couldn’t slow Astronomy down. Richard Berry was brought in to take over as Editor and began what many of us old timers consider the magazine’s Golden Age.

Not only did Berry keep Walther’s magazine going, he focused and expanded. The main magazine was on the vanguard of the Dobsonian Revolution and was a pusher of quite a few other ideas the old-timers considered uncomfortably revolutionary. And under Berry’s guidance Astronomy’s Publisher, AstroMedia Corporation, added two additional magazines to their stable, magazines aimed at hard-core amateur astronomers, Berry’s own Telescope Making, and the baby of a young and enthusiastic amateur, David Eicher, Deep Sky Magazine.

For a while, it was as if Astronomy could do no wrong. Sure, some of us disco-crazed pet rock owners still preferred Sky and Telescope for its higher level of technical sophistication and stable of distinguished columnists (like Scotty Houston). But Astronomy had wide appeal, and most of us liked the other guys just fine. Unfortunately, the Golden Age of Astronomy began to fade as early as the mid 1980s.

In 1985, Walther’s heirs sold the magazine, and, in fact, all of AstroMedia to Kalmbach Publications. Who the hell were they? A publisher who specialized in hobby-type magazines, especially magazines for model railroad enthusiasts. What did they know about amateur astronomers? Not much, apparently. One of their earliest actions, which didn’t exactly endear them to the amateur community, was to cancel both Deep Sky and Telescope Making. Quite a few of us was downright P.O.ed at that. Some of us still are.

Apparently, the two little pubs were not making enough money. I’ve been told they weren’t losing money, and were, in fact, actually making a little, but in Corporate America, even the Corporate America of twenty-five years ago, that isn’t always enough. Richard Berry stuck around until the 90s came in, and then departed, replaced by Robert Burnham.

When y’all sprouts pick up a moldy-oldie Astronomy and see “Editor: Robert Burnham” you automatically think, I’m sure, “Oh, yeah, BURNHAM’S CELESTIAL HANDBOOK!” Not. This was another, different, unrelated Burnham, but he did a good job with the magazine, and the Astronomy of his tenure is somewhat underappreciated, I believe. Robert Burnham stayed on until past the mid 90s, and kept the magazine on an even keel throughout his reign.

After Burnham vacated the Editorship, his spot was taken by one Bonnie Gordon. Ms. Gordon was an obviously talented science writer, but she didn’t seem to have much feel for or even know much about amateur astronomy. It was my impression the head-shed must have had visions of a new and perhaps more profitable Astronomy, and hired Bonnie Gordon with that in mind. Maybe they dreamed of an Astronomy Magazine that was more like Discover Magazine: a general interest science rag nominally centered on astronomy that MADE LOTSA MOOLA. For some of my mates, the magazine that resulted was the last straw. They dropped their Astronomy subscriptions and never looked back.

Which is a shame, since the Editor who followed Gordon, Dave Eicher in 2002, was not only very experienced with Astronomy Magazine, having been an editor there for years, but was one of the most talented and knowledgeable amateurs around. I stuck with Astronomy through the Bonnie years, and I’m glad I did, since today’s Astronomy is very good again—if not without its faults—and is once more recognizable as the magazine of Stephen Walther, Richard Berry, and Robert Burnham.

Exactly how are they doing lately? As I said last year, the magazine is good enough that I’m saving issues instead of passing them on to Astronomyless buddies. Almost every number has something—usually an observing article—I know I’ll want to refer to in the future. Which don’t mean the rag is perfect. The occasional wrong-headedness, which I like to think originates from Model Train Central, is still quite evident, the infamous DVD Affair being an example.

I won’t go over the whole nine yards in detail again. If’n you don’t know what I am talkin’ about, read this. If you ain’t got time, in brief it went like so: Astronomy sends you an UNSOLICITED DVD, an episode of the History Channel’s Universe series with a few minutes of new video added. Not long after, you get what looks like a bill, a lot like an overdue notice, in the mail. If you read carefully, you find it’s not really that. Since you didn’t request the DVD, you are free to keep it rather than send it back or pay for it. If you are a busy or harried sort, howsomeever, you might just glance over the “notice” and decide you’d better send Kalmbach a CHECK. Sheesh!

I had hoped this silly and counterproductive idea was a thing of the past following the considerable pillorying Astronomy received over it on the Internet. And I hoped I wouldn’t be moved to revisit the issue again this year. I myself ain’t received another DVD or associated junk mail again. But apparently some folks have. Recently. Sigh. Like I said last year, this just has to happen when I am really starting to enjoy the magazine again. Oh, well, I’ll do my best to put that unpleasantness aside and take an untainted look at the current (May 2010) ish.

Awright, here we go. Cover: pretty enough. The shot of NGC 1672 is an impressive one, and this is right in line with Astronomy’s long-time penchant for spectacular astro-images. If only we could see it better. This is one busy cover, with the lead article on black holes being trumpted in a font-size that goes a long way toward obscuring the picture. Another reason the cover looks so cluttered is two red and white banners; one at the top screaming about a SPECTACULAR MILKY WAY POSTER, and one near the bottom yelling “AND MORE!” (no, I am not making that up).

I can’t help noticing the slogan under the logo is no longer “The World’s Most Beautiful Astronomy Magazine,” but is now “The World’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine.” Has been that way for quite some time. I liked the earlier one better, and I think the new one illuminates some of the things that have been wrong with the post-Robert Burnham magazine.

Oh, there’s also the price tag at the bottom of the cover in teeny-weeny type. It’s $6.95, still fair and reasonable in my opinion, given the realities of the magazine biz, but, if’n you ask me, seven bucks is pushing the outer limits. Yeah, I pay a couple of dollars more’n that ever’ once in a while for The Sky at Night, but it’s imported and it comes with a CD. You do get a break for subscribing to Astronomy, of course.

After a slew of full-page ads, there’s the Table of Contents. Perfectly adequate with each article’s title accompanied by shorter or longer descriptive text.

Then comes Dave Eicher’s monthly editorial. I don’t tend to read these as often as I do those in the competition. Why? Eicher is most assuredly an engaging writer, but his editorials rarely hold much of interest to me. Often, they are at least partially focused on internals of the magazine, like the comings and goings of staffers. As in this month’s edition, which concerns the departure of an editor who was, from what I can tell, not even an amateur astronomer. What would make me read your spiel, Dave? Forget the goings-on in the office. I don’t care about that. Focus on the goings-on in amateur astronomy you and me care about.

Next is the customary two-page spread that showcases an outstanding (usually professional) astrophoto. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of thing, and am glad Astronomy is continuing to do it. This month is a particularly outstanding Hubble image of one of my fave galaxies, M104.

Another two-pager, “Astroconfidential,” a series of (very) short interviews with professional astronomers (never amateurs thus far) follows. If you read last year’s “Trouble,” you know I didn't much like this feature. I still don’t. In this age of thin magazines (this issue does make it to 88 pages, but the just-arrived June is a real skinny 72), two pages is a lot of editorial space to sacrifice for this malarkey.

After Letters and more advertisements (good!), there is Bob Berman’s “Strange Universe.” What can I say? I know this is not everybody’s cup of tea, and I used to think it wasn’t mine, but lately I never fail to get a chuckle out of ol' Bob’s sometimes weird and often off-beat humor. Not only do I get a chuckle out of it, I most always learn something, or at least have a look at something familiar in Bob’s different, idiosyncratic way. Good on him.

Glen Chaple gives us his “Observing Basics.” Glen is an incredibly talented observer who has the rare ability to clarify the most obscure. This month’s column, which concerns celestial scale and distance, is one of the best things in the issue. In fact, Mr. Chaple’s column is often the best thing in any given issue. Only complaint? It keeps moving around. Sometimes it’s in the back, sometimes it’s in the front. Howsabout keeping it in one spot, preferably near the front of the rag?

Steve O’Meara is, I don’t have to tell you old timers, a formidably gifted writer, probably one of the top two or three working in our field. Acquiring him for Astronomy was quite a coup. That said, I don’t often do too much more than skim his monthly “Sky Secrets.” That’s because his current “beat” is for the most part near-sky phenomena/naked eye observing, and I’m not overly interested in that kinda stuff at the moment. If you are interested, you won’t be disappointed, I speck.

Thought Astronomy had moved-on to the 21st century and dispensed with their “Astro News” section? To quote Nelson Muntz, “HA-HA!” It is just, for some inexplicable reason, 22 pages into the issue. What’s to say? The same thing I said about Sky and Telescope’s “News Notes,” “Why?” This is even worse, actually, since it burns five pages of content to S&T’s three. Like Sky, Astronomy has competent news coverage on its website. Isn’t that enough?

Following the News Hour (seemed that long, anyhow) we get the first of the issue’s features, which, in traditional Astronomy fashion, are pro-astronomy/science fact. Steve Nadis’ “Exploring the Galaxy – Black Hole Connection” and Christopher Chyba’s “The New Search for Life in the Universe.” Both are very competently written, and both seem very accurate given I mostly just scanned them. There was nothing here that was news to me, but you may be different and like ‘em both. I will say the latter subject is a road we’ve been down fairly frequently of late in the magazine. There never seems to be a shortage of articles delineating the basics of black holes, either. Again, though, good, solid work.

Edumacated as to the goins-on in the world of professional astronomy, we come to Alister Ling and Martin Ratcliffe’s “The Sky this Month.” This is, as it’s long been, a detailed, professionally done explication of the month’s sky events. Only thing I didn’t like? They broke her up. You get one page, then you gotta turn to page 53 to continue. That’s a lot of fun out in the dark with a red light, guys.

Normally, the monthly sky chart, which astronomy calls the “Sky Dome,” would be next. This time, however, it’s preceded up by a multi-page insert, a four page fold-out mosaic of the Milky Way, a remarkable picture, really, done by a professional physicist, Alex Mellinger, in amateur fashion with an STL11000 CCD and a 50mm lens. Striking, beautiful. This is the sort of thing Astronomy does well and has always done well. Near about worth the price of admission in this ol’ hillbilly’s considered opinion.

Looking over this beautiful image, my eyes fell on the page of introductory text that accompanies it. The subtitle of the article reads: “An amateur astronomer captures our galaxy in glorious detail. by Michael E. Bakich.” Questions about whether it would have been better to use title case aside, what’s with the lower case “b” at the start of the second sentence? Is this a new trend? And why was the second sentence in a different font? Why did it e’en need to be a separate sentence? I’m not always one to follow the rules (haw-haw!) a long succession of English teachers tried to drum into my thick skull, but there is a lot of this kinda odd-usage stuff in this issue. I find it distracting, not groovy-cool-modern.

Following is the Sky Dome, and it is one of the things I love about Astronomy. It’s two pages, it’s a fold out, and it’s backed with large, clear, and extensive planetary data, including a chart of the ecliptic that even I can read under a dim red light. The map itself is legible and easy to use, and almost (but not quite) everything on these pages is in red-light-friendly colors. Good show.

After the remaining three pages of “The Sky this Month,” I was hoping to run into an article on AMATEUR astronomy. Nope. Next is yet another fact piece, “Galaxies Near the Dawn of Time.” It’s about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and distances and redshifts and stuff like that. On the one hand, my reaction was, “How in the heck many times is Astronomy gonna cover this dadgummed ground?” On the other hand, I had to acknowledge that this is very well done and will be appreciated by many newbies, no doubt.

Next is “Ask Astro.” This monthly feature consists of questions, ostensibly by readers, most of which are fairly simple, like “What is the number one piece of advice a beginning astronomer needs to receive?” Hey! I can answer that one: “TAKE UP STAMP COLLECTING INSTEAD!” Just kidding, y’all. Actually, quite a few of the questions were not so simple, but rather thoughtful, such as “Why didn’t any of the other gas giants develop a ring system like Saturn?” Still, couldn’t this kinda thing be done as well or better online? Is this worth the sacrifice of innocent trees and two more pages of editorial content?

Finally, after 64 consarned pages there’s an article about observational amateur astronomy. Which is Michael Bakich’s “Target 30 Obscure Gems” (that title is, by the way, in THREE different fonts). Mr. Mike takes us on a tour of thirty nice DSOs across the late spring – summer sky. Not all of them are that challenging, especially given the title of this (semi-regular, I think) column, “Large Scope Showcase,” but all of them are cool, and I intend to follow in Mr. Bakich’s footsteps soon. Only complaint? There was no table/list of the objects' vital stats. I did notice a blurb at the end referring me to the website for further info. Visiting that page turned up what I was looking for. Lucky I am a subscriber, though, or I wouldn’t have been allowed to see it (more on that in a minute).

Jiminy Crickets! Another “amateur” article! And by one of my fave astro-writers, Phil Harrington! I’m not just a fan of Phil, I consider myself a friend of this talented author, so I’ll admit to a smidge of bias. Nevertheless, I think it’s clear his writings on binocular astronomy, one of his prime interests, are world class. They sure are in the two pages he’s allotted in this issue, where he does a best-of-the-best of top summer binocular deep sky targets. Only gripe? Phil’s late, great binocular column should be back in every single issue. What should they give up to make room? Hmmm…let me think. Which would I like best, “Astro Confidential,” “Ask Astro,” another article on them consarned black holes, or Phil’s wonderful binocular tours?

Then there is “Fun Observing the Sun” by Mike Bakich. OK. But it tries to do way too much in introducing a novice to Solar observing in a mere two pages, most of which are taken up by pretty pictures. We go from safety warnings, to equipment suggestions, to eclipse information without learning much about any of it.

Glean Chaple is back with a review of the Vixen AX103S APO refractor. Glen does a great job considering that he has precious little space to do it in—just over a page, maybe, when you subtract out the large illos. This is an improvement over some of the truly dreadful reviews the magazine has run over the last decade (Phil has also done some good ones), but for Glen or Phil or anybody else to really do well, they need more space than the magazine has so far been inclined to give. My conclusion? Astronomy is not serious about gear reviews, and hasn’t been for quite a while.

The other huge recruiting triumph for Astronomy, David Levy, has his monthly say on page 76. His one-pagers here are pretty much indistinguishable from his “Star Trails” installments in Sky and Telescope. That is, they are very well done by this dean of astro-writers, are always fun to read, and often cover the “softer” side of amateur astronomy. This ish we get a beautifully done little piece on his and his wife, Wendee’s, Sharing the Sky Foundation and the Adirondack Astronomy Retreat. If you’re, like your old Uncle, an astronomy writer and wonder why David is head and shoulders above the rest of us, just read his columns. Nuff said.

Almost to the end now, on page 78, is another new feature, “TelescopeInsider.” What it is is a short interview with somebody in the commercial amateur astronomy biz. This time we get Michael Barber of Santa Barbara Instrument Group—SBIG, the CCD people. I like this well-written column, and wonder why nobody else is doing anything like it. Not so hotsky? Some of Bill Andrews’ questions this time coulda been a little more pointed than, for example, “What’s something cool about SBIG that nobody knows?”

Then there’s Astronomy’s equivalent of Sky and Telescope’s “New Product Showcase.” The Astronomy boys and girls call theirs simply “New Products.” Otherwise it’s just the same as what you get from the other guys. Short new product announcements without editorial content.

Next is a weird, outré X-Y graph (sorta) called “The Cosmic Grid,” which is subtitled “All things high, low, weird and wonderful in astronomy and space science.” Is it that? Hard to say. Its attempt to label variegated things as “hot – not/weird – predictable” is mostly a confused and indecipherable mishmash for me. For example, the fact that the nearest black hole is farther away than previously thought is close to the “NOT!” end of this strange graph’s X-axis, while the news that NASA will fund some kinda educational program is right up against the “HOT!” on the other end. Huh? What I think they are a-trying to do is emulate Wired Magazine’s famous Wired – Tired feature. Sigh. Maybe I’m just getting old, but for this they cancelled Phil's column?

Almost to the end. We get a single page from Editor Dave Eicher, his monthly “Deep Sky Showcase.” This ain’t exactly Deep Sky Magazine—I wish it were longer—but I like it. One or two objects each time, with a great description and Dave’s wonderful field drawings. A lot like what he did in a long-running Astronomy column from the old days, “The Backyard Astronomer,” which became one of my fave astro-books of all time, The Universe from Your Backyard.

At the tail end is the obligatory astro image gallery, the creatively titled “Reader Gallery.” Like Sky and Telescope’s “Gallery,” there is far too much of the 20-hour-exposure-with-a-telescope-you-can’t-afford mess here if’n you axe me, but the “parting shot” full-page image on the last page is probably the most impressive of all, and it, a shot of a Geminid fireball, was done with a relatively humble Canon DSLR. And that is it. The back-of-cover is occupied by a Meade ad, as it often has been over the years. Kinda gives me a warm fuzzy, doncha know.

So, all-in-all, May was quite a good issue. I did do a little whining and complaining, sure, but there was enough to like that I’ll keep subscribing, I reckon. But that’s not the main question. The question is, “How will Astronomy survive the decline of the Great American Magazine?”

There’s hope for ‘em, I think. Yes, the website is kinda busy-looking, and it is positively infested with junk like pop-up ads and animation. But there is good there, muchachos. Much of the current issue’s content is backed-up by what Astronomy calls “web extras.” In addition to the example above, a data table to go along with the deep sky observing article, there is additional (non technical) matter to accompany the fact pieces. The Solar observing article is supported by a .pdf copy of a write-up on H-alpha viewing with a Coronado scope. In fact, most of the articles have a corresponding web page. None of this is blow-you-away, but it’s nice, and is the direction all magazines need to be heading in. If only they made it available to everybody.

The Web Extras and considerable other Internet-content is “subscriber only.” That is, you have to have a current subscription and log-in to view it. Yeah, I know they need to lure subscribers, but what about the poor schmuck who bought an issue offa the newsstand, and actually paid more for it than Susie-subscriber did? Why can’t there be a code included in the newsstand copies to unlock that issue’s web stuff? If people could actually see what they are missing maybe they’d want it all the more, y’all.

Otherwise? As far as I know (and, as I done said, I don’t know much about the doings of the Astronomy crew), there are no plans to offer the magazine in digital form. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, though, since they have offered back issues of Deep Sky and Telescope Making in downloadable form for a while (if in relatively poorly scanned fashion). If’n they do, I hope they keep their wits about ‘em and the price reasonable. Some of the digital files we’ve been offered from Astronomy over the last year have been a wee bit overpriced.

You want the bottom line? Astronomy Magazine is not perfect. But what is? The Ground Truth is that the magazine is better than it has been in years. Who knows what the future holds, but at least I know I am once again looking forward to the time of the month when the new Astronomy drops though the Chaos Manor South mail slot.

The Aliens

Unless you live in Lower Slobovia, you probably know there are more glossy, commercial, newsstand astronomy rags than just the two U.S. biggies. Even down here in Possum Swamp, the local Barnes and Noble’s puts out The Sky at Night, Astronomy Now, and SkyNews once a month. Are these rags worth their rather steep prices? How do they compare to the Sky and Telescope/Astronomy “standard”? That, cats and kittens, is a question for another time, but one I promise I will answer directly (which, in Southern Speak, can mean “ten-minutes” or “ten-years”).

This is one of the few times I have to disagree with Ol' UncaRod. I go back nearly as far as Unc does, and I saw the rise of "Astronomy" as a very bad thing at the time - a shift to sensationalism and hype away from sober consideration of the sky and the methods for getting at it. It was far away from the real ethos of science, which is, after all, more about the imagination than the retina. I didn't like being shouted at and and pandered to like a carnival goer on the Midway. Things only got worse with OMNI, Discover, and so on. Science began to develop aspects of religion, and these rags were the sort of unofficial press organs for the new regime. I see it all of a piece. And it forced Sky and Telescope to revise their editorial policies for the worse.

I have been reading Astronomy since the late 70's. I always looked at Astronomy as trying to bring the "mainstream audience" into the hobby and science of astronomy. I always thought of Sky & Telescope as being the "serious" magazine. I still look at it the same way today.

I subscribe to Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, and Astronomy Technology Today, and I believe that each brings something to the table that the others do not.
Hi Jim:

I pretty much feel the same way, and those are my three current subscribed-tos as well.
like ur writing's the real deal. just keep on writing...
Hi Uncle Rod

Do you have a copy of the August 1977 "Astronomy" still? Reason why is that I'm researching a paper about Robert D. Enzmann's starship concepts and one of the articles, Thomas R. Schroeder's "Slow Boat to Centauri", on page 6. is one of the rare few References to his concept. I'm in touch with Dr. Enzmann, but he's getting on and hard to communicate with - I'm talking via his intermediaries and not always getting the answer to my questions I'm expecting.

Hoping you can help.
Very sorry...just checked...and it looks like that's one of the ones ex-wife number 2 sent to the dump. ;-(

Here's hoping the Astronomy bunch puts theirs on DVD soon.
Hi Rod

C'est la vie! Clearly she's the ex because she didn't appreciate the finer things in life, like amateur astronomy!
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