Saturday, August 07, 2010


Stars instead of Cars

It was Stephanie’s telescope that did it, muchachos. That’s what set me on the road to amateur astronomy. Or, really, it was just the first spark. What else kindled my fire? I’d been observing the sky with my eyes and toy binoculars both before and after Miss Stephanie brought her wonderful Christmas telescope to school for Show and Tell. I’d been looking at the sky, yeah, but beyond the few stars and constellation patterns I’d learned, I didn’t know much about it. Stars rectified that a couple of Christmases after Stephanie’s telescope.

As you may have deduced if you’re a regular reader of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South, I am not the church-going type. I have a spiritual side, but never have felt at home in organized religion. For one thing, with a few exceptions, I'm not a joiner. Even into early adolescence, though, deep down, I wanted go to and feel at home at church. Maybe so I could Be Like Everybody Else. Which was perhaps why I grudgingly kept going to Sunday School. Well, of course, there was also Mama's stern insistence I do so, "I will not hear it said I have raised a little heathen!"

Anyhoo, not only did Mama expect me to attend Sunday School, she absolutely insisted I go to occasional extracurricular activities as well, like the Christmas party our Sunday school teacher had planned. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about that, but it was the holiday season after all. And I could be bribed. One afternoon, Mama sent me to her and the OM’s bedroom to fetch her sewing basket off the shelf of their closet. When I pulled it down, what should I spy lurking in the back corner but an AMT model car kit. A fancy one.

I was never a huge fan of plastic model cars. I tended to favor airplanes, Aurora’s Universal Monster Models, and, especially, spaceships like Explorer I. But I liked glue-em-together kits of any kind, and it was apparent this was a cool one, a 1965 Lincoln Continental that included customizing options—which meant you got some extra plastic pieces and a tube of body filler putty. I put two and two together: Sunday School Christmas party + lone gift (there was no sign of SANTA STUFF) = score if I went to the dadgum party. Well, in return for an evening or two’s model-building enjoyment, I guessed I could put up with an hour or so of punch, cookies, and praying.  I was also pretty sure Miss Jitter Jones, a fellow 6th grade classmate with whom I suddenly wanted to spend much time, would be there.

The party wasn’t so bad. Above and beyond the prospect of a free model kit and the presence of the fascinating Jitter, I was in the holiday mood—maybe the 1965 Perry Como Christmas Special had helped—and was able to endure a half hour discussion of The Christmas Miracle with good grace. After the inevitable punch and cookies and considerable time spent in soulful conversation with Miss Jones, it was time to open the presents.

Our not at all youthful Youth Leader, Miss Emily Baldwin, played Santa, handing out the gifts with what for her was wild abandon and unaccustomed good cheer. I couldn’t help wondering if the normally spinsterish and reserved and sometimes dour Mizz Baldwin had got hold of some high octane eggnog someplace. I could have used some myself when the substantial box that contained the AMT model, and which I’d had an eye on all evening, and which I assumed had my name on it, didn’t wind up in my hands but in the eager ones of my buddy, Wayne Lee. I got a smallish package, maybe the size of a paperback book. What the hey?

Ignoring Wayne Lee, who had ripped the paper off and was chirping with the unbounded enthusiasm for which he was known, “OH BOY, AN AMT!” I removed the wrapping of my gift without much hope, to expose the little book pictured below, the simply titled Stars. Naturally, with Miss Jones in attendance, I did not want to whine about my inexplicable bad fortune. And a book was more adult than a crummy model car, right?

When the festivities were over and Jitter and I had said our long goodbyes—her parents were spiriting her off to Andalusia to spend Christmas with grandma—I phoned Mama to pick me up. I normally rode my bike up to youth functions like the MYF ("Methodist Young Folks" we thought that was), but Mama was sure I’d find a way to mess up my good clothes if I did so on this evening, and she was probably right. Wayne Lee had hurried off home—to assemble that dang model car, I figured—so I loitered around outside the Sunday school building, watching for Mama. Not that you could miss her in her beloved shocking-pink 1957 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, which roared in for its touchdown in due course.

After I got in the car, she asked me if I’d had a good time, and before I could answer, answered for me with a wink, “I’ll just bet you did; I saw that cute little Jones girl leaving.” That was followed by “Well, what did you get?” After a suitable pause to allow Mama to fill in the blanks for me if she intended to, I mumbled,

“A darn book. About the stars.”

I was interested to see how Mama would reply; I expected, “Now, how did you wind up with that?” or more likely, “‘Darn?’ Don’t you dare use profanity at the church. You are not too big to spank.” Instead, she betrayed no surprise or irritation at all, “Now isn’t that nice. You’re so interested in space; that oughta be just perfect.”

And, so, that was that. Mama’s evident and underlined lack of concern over what I thought was a horrendous mix-up made me reluctant to raise the subject again. A good rule for dealing with Mama? “Don’t start nothin’, won’t be nothin’.”

I am to this day still not sure how I wound up with Stars. It’s possible Mama, generous soul that she was, had furnished both my and Wayne Lee’s gifts, since I think his folks were experiencing economic hard times, something all of us on the lower end of the middle class were acquainted with back then. Or maybe she’d just volunteered to pick up Wayne Lee’s AMT kit for his mama, who worked evenings at the Kwik Chek grocery. What I suspect today is the caper has “Emily Baldwin” written all over it. She made no secret it was her mission in life to get me Interested in Science, and she’d been wearing her patented cat-who-ate-the-canary look when she handed me my Christmas present. Whatever the reason, I sure was lucky Wayne Lee got the Lincoln Continental.

Back home in my room, I deigned to actually pick up Stars and have a look. I was immediately struck by the glossy cover, which featured pictures of wildly colored planets, Moons, stars, and nebulae with my fave planet, Saturn, dead center. I was intrigued by distant Uranus, which was so fascinating in Journey to the Seventh Planet, but it was Saturn and his rings I really wanted to see.

I was badly disappointed my Cub Scout Den hadn’t got to see the ringed wonder the night we visited Springhill College’s observatory. When Miss Baldwin, who was also naturally our Den Mother,
 inquired about Saturn to the physics student running the 12-inch Cave behemoth, he replied that we wouldn’t get to see Saturn because it wasn’t in the sky that night. Which puzzled me. Wasn't in the sky? Wasn’t Saturn always in the sky? Where else would it be? Maybe Stars would explain that.

It did. And how. The author, Herbert Zim, wasn’t an astronomer, but he was a prolific science writer and was the Editor of Western Publishing’s Little Golden Nature Guides series. Not only did Zim oversee the imprint, he authored many of the titles, everything from Fishes to Wildflowers.

I don’t know if Zim had a special interest in the night sky or not, but he sure knew how to put together a book on the subject. His prose is strikingly clear, and the man had that gift common to all great authors of children’s’ books: he didn’t talk down to his audience. He merely explained the facts of the Solar System and the larger Universe as they were understood at the dawn of the Space Age. It’s not an exaggeration to say that when I finished reading Stars, just an evening or two after I received it, my knowledge of The Great Out There had increased ten-fold.

And it was fun learning. Not just due to Zim’s clear prose, but because of the charming and informative illustrations, tables, and diagrams by Stars’ illustrator, James Gordon Irving. Yes, Herb Zim’s text helped me understand the simple concepts I’d been ignorant of, including the fact that the planets move against the background stars, but what I remember most fondly is Irving’s delicious paintings and pastel drawings. His depictions of the planets are, in fact, still the way I see them in my mind’s eye.

The little volume just had in incredible effect on me. I read it and I reread it. I even took it to school when my sixth grade teacher, strict but attractive Miss Stinson (I thought she was the prettiest teacher in the whole school), announced she’d decided to cut back on THE NEW MATH—which was her passion—for a couple of weeks and (YES!) do a space-science unit with us right after Christmas.

One day, Miss S. strolled into the classroom bearing a dozen big sheets of butcher paper. She told us she wanted us to break into groups and make posters of the Solar System. Naturally, my group was composed of me, Wayne Lee, and Jitter. I was enthusiastic enough about the project to bring Stars in to serve as our reference, and soon we not only had the Sun and planets sketched out, we were making little annotations on our poster about meteor showers, and had added a few asteroids to the gap between Mars and Jupiter thanks to Dr. Zim.

Heck, to my surprise, silly old Wayne Lee really got into it. The ever-attractive Miss Jones? Not so much. She spent most of her time sidling up next to me, wondering if I needed anything, declaring she’d be only too happy to bring me a coke from the machine at recess if Wayne Lee and I wanted to keep working.

I have no fonder memories of grade school than the few days I spent working on that poster with Wayne Lee and Jitter. It’s a bittersweet memory, though, since not long after that, the cotton pickin’ pointy-headed Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, closed down our city’s big employer, Brookley Air Force Base, and both Jitter and Wayne Lee moved away and out of my life forever.

Stars became my bible, both because it was a wonderful little book and because every time I picked it up I was reminded of the long, languid Gulf Coast summer afternoons I spent with Wayne Lee and Jitter. I was hardly the only kid who loved Stars, though. If any proof of that is needed, it’s that it remains in print even to this day, having been continuously revised over the years, keeping on keeping on after both the death of Herbert Zim in 1994 and Western Publishing’s sale of the Golden Guides line to St. Martin’s in 2001.

Which was still in the unimaginably distant future that Christmas of 1964. As you can see by the picture, I used the heck out of Stars. Even after I began to accumulate more “advanced” books like Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer, I kept on using Stars. It was just so dadgummed convenient. No, its star charts were not overly detailed, but I could stuff the little thing in the back pocket of my jeans, which I couldn’t do with Sir Patrick’s books or an issue of Sky and (no "&" in those days) Telescope. I am proud to say I’ve hung on to my original copy of Stars through the countless moves of the intervening four and a half decades. When one of my nieces expressed an interest in astronomy, the first thing I did was go right out and buy her a copy of Stars.

That brings us, finally, to the other subject of this blog, beginner’s astro-books. Even with the Internet and all, there is still a need, a great need, for them. Maybe some of y’all out there in blog-land need one now, not necessarily for yourself, but to recommend to that new person down to the club. Sweet as it is, Stars ain’t the only novice book on astronomy, hardly. And, yeah, it is a kids’ book. One of these Sunday’s I’ll draw up a list of what I think are some other good younguns’ astro-books. This time out, I’d like to recommend books for adult/teenage novices. There is at least some overlap; a book like Stars is more than useable by anybody. But some books are more suited to grown up starry-eyed innocents.

Hokay, what say we trot down to the local Barnes and Noble (or Books-a-Million, or Borders, or whatever—if you are not lucky enough to have an independent book seller in town). The Possum Swamp B&N, which recently closed its doors in the company’s pathetic retrenching,  tried to give its customers what it thought we wanted. In our case, what they believed a bunch of hayseeds would like. After the store had been open a year or two, not only did they dramatically reduce their initially good inventory of science and math books, they hid ‘em away in a corner near the bathrooms. Didn’t want them bad ol’ science and math tomes anywhere where they might harm innocent teenagers.

Anyhoo, let’s take a look at what’s there. We astronomers are at least fortunate our science is gee-whiz enough to catch the occcasional chain buyer’s eye, so we do get a few new books now and then. If you fancy yourself an amateur mathematician you are slap outa luck, Charlie. Yeah, I know the chains will order books for you, but why encourage the rascals? If I have to order a volume, it will be from Amazon, where at least I can (usually) get a better deal, and won’t get funny looks from a teen clerk: “You want a book on astrology?”

These are my picks for introductory books (in no particular order). Old timers: don’t get your noses out of joint if your fave is not listed. There are many more good books in this category than I can list, and, believe it or not, I am not familiar with every single blessed one

The Sky Observer’s Guide

Yes, I am recommending another Little Golden Guide to y’all. Like Stars, it is just as helpful for adults as it is for the kids. This one, by R. Newton Mayall and Margaret Mayall, may be even better than Stars as a book on amateur astronomy. It’s got a lot more in it about telescopes and practical observing than Stars does, but also includes plenty about how the sky works.

Baby Boom generation amateur astronomers tend to be either Stars people or Sky Observer’s Guide people. That may reflect who was initially more interested in the science/theoretical end of astronomy than the practical side and vice versa. Mostly I think it just has to do with which book you ran into first. If I’d unwrapped the Mayalls’ little pocket book at that long ago Christmas party, I’m sure I’d be just as fond of it as I am of Stars.

A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets

Another sentimental favorite of mine is Dr. Jay Pasachoff’s A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets . What’s its claim to fame? It’s like a big boy’s and girl’s Stars. The same sort of general guide to the night sky, but on a much more detailed level and in a decidedly thicker package—578 pages. Nevertheless, it’s still portable, and even in this computer age, packs an information wallop.

Which is what, decades ago, drew me to the original version written by Pasachoff’s mentor, Dr. Donald Menzel, who was, like Jay, a professional astronomer, author, and astronomy popularizer (he was also a notorious UFO debunker, but that’s a story for another day). Even ages ago, this book was filled with maps and tables enough to cover almost any circumstance.

I’ve particularly admired the Pasachoff edition(s) for its charts. Within the covers of this paperback you will find a complete star atlas by that dean of celestial cartographers, Wil Tirion. Not only are the charts beautiful, they go down to an amazing magnitude (for a book like this) 7.0. Yeah, they are a little small; I first realized middle-aged farsightedness was coming the night I found I could no longer read the charts under a red light.

One other nice thing about Stars and Planets is that Dr. Pasachoff continues to update and improve the book. He is also very responsive to reader requests. Many of his fans are, no doubt, of my generation, and quite a few of us began complaining that the Tirion charts in the book, which were in the white-stars-on-black-sky format, were suddenly and inexplicably hard to read. Jay must have heard and understood, because in the the next edition the atlas charts had been changed to color-stars-on-a-white-sky, and I can decipher the maps with fair ease again—well, with the help of my snickin’-snarfin’ reading glasses, natch.


I probably would never have known what a good book Terence Dickinson’s Nightwatch is if my sister-in-law hadn’t been stumped as to what to get me one Christmas nearly 20 years ago. She got me this book, and though I was two and a half decades past “novice,” I loved Nightwatch. Trust me, it’s good, and you want it when you are just getting started. I especially love the book’s big, spiral bound format. It’s convenient to read, and the charts in it open and stay absolutely flat. Yeah, those charts could be a little more detailed, but this is a novice book. The rest of Nightwatch is filled with plenty of good words on getting a scope and looking through it once you’ve got it.

The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide

What is Terence Dickinson’s other perennially popular book like? The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (with Alan Dyer) is like a Sky Observer’s Guide for grownups. It goes into considerably more detail than that little book or Dickinson’s own Nightwatch, but not so much as to befuddle the average adult novice amateur astronomer.

It even goes so far as to get you started in astrophotography. It could stand some updating, though, as the last edition I saw was still stuck in the film imaging age. And if you want specific information about current telescopes, fuhgeddaboutit. You’ll want Phil Harrington’s Star Ware instead. Nevertheless, Backyard is a fine and elegant introduction to the amateur astronomy gestalt and belongs on your shelf.

The Amateur Astronomer

It hasn't been long since I talked about this one. Yes, while it has been updated as the years have rolled on, it’s still not exactly on the cutting edge of astronomy technology. At least my 11th edition (1990) isn’t. Heck, in the “Telescopes” chapter, Patrick is still warning us away from the pillar and claw telescope mounts that went the way of the dodo over half a century ago.

However, equipment advice isn’t the reason you buy The Amateur Astronomer. You buy it for Patrick’s time-tested wisdom on observing, and especially observing the Solar System. And you buy it for his calm, competent, and friendly words about being an amateur astronomer.

The Sky: a User’s Guide

I also told you-all about this one not long back. As I said then, it’s kinda like The Amateur Astronomer for a novice who’s more interested in the deep sky than the Solar System. I am not sure it is technically still in print, given the fact that Amazon is selling it at fire sale prices. In fact, I think it’s been heavily revised under a new title, David Levy’s Guide to the Night Sky. I don’t care which one you get; you won’t fail to be gobsmacked by David’s lyrical prose and the depth of his knowledge.

Stargazing: Astronomy without a Telescope

Several of the books above have chapters about learning the stars and constellations, but none is specifically about that. This one by Sir Patrick is. I'm very fond of it--it's a Patrick Moore book, after all--but I’m not sure it’s really necessary. I tend to think a red light, a monthly star chart from one of the magazines, and a dark sky (but not too dark; too many stars under a pristine sky only confuse) are all you need.

“But Uncle Rod, how about H.A. Rey’s famous The Stars?”

The Rey book has been in print since 1952, and a lot of folks remember it fondly from childhood, but it’s not really good for learning the constellations. The author insists on drawing stick figures in the stars that make the constellations look like their namesakes—Gemini looks like twins, Boötes is a herdsman, etc.—rather than concentrating on star patterns that are easy to find and remember. If I were to do a book on constellations, I’d go in the opposite direction, simplifying even further. My “Cassiopeia” would become “The Golden Arches of Macdonald’s.” Whatev. Rey’s name will live forever as the creator of that Good Little Monkey, Curious George.

Touring the Universe through Binoculars

I’ve never been one to suggest binoculars—just binoculars—to novices. I got started with binoculars, but only because I had to. It took about a year for me to get my hands on a telescope once I decided I wanted to be an amateur. Most novices long for the craters of the Moon and the rings of Saturn more than they do for the wide vistas of binoculars. I do think every novice needs a pair of binoculars, but in addition to a telescope. But...every time I pick up this book, I almost change my mind about that.

Phil Harrington’s Touring the Universe through Binoculars is what you should get before buying a pair of binoculars or right after a pair falls into your hands—whether you are a new amateur or not. The book is a big help choosing binoculars, but it’s also a huge help figuring out what the heck you can see with them. It’s not immediately obvious to newbies, but there is an incredible wealth of celestial riches just right for binocs, and your old Uncle Phil tells you all about it rat cheer.

Star Ware

If you’re gonna buy one of Phil’s books, you might as well buy two, and I can think of few more appropriate than this one that's all about commercial telescope and accessories. Obviously a lot of novices agree, since the book is in its 4th edition now, fer gosh sakes. In short, everything you need to know to pick and purchase a scope. Everything.

Choosing and Using a New CAT

If I can plug good buddy Phil’s books, I reckon I can plug a couple of my own, too. Choosing and Using a New CAT started life as the 2nd edition of my earlier book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. Alas, the head honchos at my publisher pronounced “Subsequent editions don’t sell; you have to do a new book.”

2021 UPDATE:

Which is just what I did. The original was completely rewritten and re-titled.  But then, just a couple of years ago, the editorial staff at Springer changed their mind. Choosing and Using a New CAT was a good seller for them, and they now wanted a second edition of this one. Which was cool beans by me. I could rewrite the parts that needed updating and fix what needed fixing without rewriting the whole dadgummed shebang.

Who’s this book for? If you have even an inkling a Schmidt Cassegrain telescope or a Maksutov Cassegrain telescope is the one for you, this is your book. Nuff said. There's plenty of other material in Choosing and Using besides just, well, choosing and using: maintenance, troubleshooting, even a section on star testing.

The Urban Astronomer’s Guide

I wrote this one for a good reason: Plenty of new amateurs are enthusiastic about the deep sky, but live where they can’t see it. Or think they can’t. The purpose of Urban Astronomer was and is to educate newbies and old hands alike about what can be seen from the worst light pollution and how to see it. I don’t mind saying I think the book does a pretty good job of that.

Can I share a fantasy with you-all? I’m sitting around Chaos Manor South one evening, minding my own bidness when the phone rings. It’s a BIG HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER. He wants to turn Urban Astronomer into a ROMANTIC COMEDY about an amateur astronomer (Hugh Grant) wrongly accused of using his scope to peer in the bedroom window of The Girl Next Door (Drew Barrymore). Hilarity and romance ensues. Mr. Producer offers me a few million. I live happily ever after. Well, I can dream cain’t I?

Next Time:  I'm going to be a little busy tomorrow, Sunday, and I hope to get out with a telescope for a while tonight (though it will probably not be good enough for me to pursue the Herschel Project), so I figgered better early than late, muchachos. Anyhow, next time around we will probably take up the ubiquitous Atlas/EQ-6, Unk's fave bargain basement telescope mount.

I don't know Rod, sometimes you really scare me because you keep hitting things right on the head. It's like we grew up together and you remember everything I've forgotten :o)

clear skies,

You should be scared! When you get as old as I am it starts coming right back to you... LOL!

Actually, I suspect many of us Baby Boomers experienced exactly the same things back in the Golden Age (or so what we curmudgeons like to call the amateur astronomy of the 60s). It seems odd to me not many of us have done much talking about it heretofore.

Maybe because it takes gettin' to the shady part of your 50s before you start taking stock of where you have been.

My Mom came home with the "Field Guide" one day - my first REAL astronomy book - and before you could spit I was using the orbit diagrams to calculate where the planets were. With pencil and paper. Those were the days! I slept with that book. I still have it. And three later editions!

Like you the book, "Stars", was one of my very favorites. I too have my worn original copy, as well as a newer one. I always loved the picture for the "Stars of Winter", with the lonely snow covered pine and country road.

Thanks for sharing these memories and insights,

John O'Hara

Thank you for your kind words, John. This one was a labor of love. :-)

You can say confidently The Urban Astronomer's Guide ''does a pretty good job''!
I was already for 25 years amateur astronomer but living in a pretty big city. I achieved about 50 Deep Sky objects on my list.
Your book and your suggested tips gave me courage, since than I saw hundreds of DSO, mostly from the city. Thank you !
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