File Size: 4221 KB
Print Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (December 18, 2012)
Publication Date: December 18, 2012
Being a boy I was curious by astronomy and at age 10 owned an off-the shelf hand telescope that, in my recollection, simply made the bright superstars brighter. I once tried to observe the crescent of Venus through my mother's hand mirror and a magnifying glass. I did get to see the bands of Saturn, finally, through the 8" telescope at the Buffalo Museum of Science, and this day I divide the world into those who have seen that spectacle firsthand and those who haven't. Well-liked astronomy in the 50s was lunar and planetary: the supposed canal system of Mars, for example , was still an issue of debate.
I lost my interest in the 1960's when astronomy became less optic and more electronic. Real findings and images of heavenly bodies are egalitarian. Spectroscopic charts, radio waves, adnger zone exploration and the like required time, advanced schooling, and money. Every 10 years or so something would catch my fancy: Apollo 11, Viking, Pioneer, Hubble, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, Cassini. But why should an amateur like myself spend money and time at something already being done with more precision at Arecibo in Puerto Rico or Mt. Palomar in California, or from a satellite in space, for that matter?
Timothy Ferris argues in so many words that the present day astronomical-industrial complex, so to talk, is actually big and too expensive to do some of the most critical work of present day astronomy. The author offers a plethora of examples, such as planetary weather. Most exoplanets have atmospheres with characteristics not totally unlike the earth's own. The atmospheres of the large exterior planets [and in at least one case, a planetary satellite] have predictable patterns of wind currents and even storms that produce super. Mars, we now have come to realize, has substantial dirt storms and seasonal markers. To monitor these systems, however, requires daily findings over months and years. With the crush of competition for seat time for the monster telescopes and the expense involved, such meticulous and time eating planetary observations are gradually falling into the hands of the dedicated [and exquisitely patient] amateur backyard astronomers. Typically the older, smaller, and mid-range telescopes have come into a fresh age of effectiveness, where persistence is of equal value to optic power. And, since the creator observes, the marriage of any modest telescope with photography, computer controls, and Internet access to professionals, has created a formidable network of information gatherers.
Nowhere is the amateur's value of more importance than in the discovery and tracking of NEO's, asteroids whose orbits regularly criss-cross the globe's. Observation of these dangerous bodies and forecast of collisions is extremely difficult for several reasons. NEO's are challenging to see [in some instances, at the 29th magnitude], only small tracks of their orbits are currently known, and they are notoriously prone to gravitational influences from the earth, sunlight, and even Jupiter. Science has developed a public code system for risk from each known object, and I would venture a reckon that readers will find particular stimulation from Ferris's conversation of the "Torino Scale. " [As I was reading this work, I checked the day's "Torino forecast" on NASA's web site, the very day that NASA used a "Torino 4" ranking for the first time, for Asteroid 2004MN4. Since this occurred the same day since the Asian tsunami, little or no press coverage was devoted to the event, though astronomers around the world focused on the potential risk of a 2029 collision. Typically the odds for 2004MN4 were downgraded to Torino 1 a few days later. ]
Suffice to express that NEO's are the "high needs child" of space observation, and every verifiable observation by an amateur astronomer enables NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA) and international tracking systems to add another portion of certainty to a body's orbit. Ferris intersperses observational details of heavenly bodies with interviews of the men and women who do the observing. Their use of the word "amateur" is stretched like taffy. Some of these unsalaried observers have put in six-figures in outfitting their equipment or, in some cases, pursuing doctorates to expedite their work. A few have walked away from lucrative professions and made wholesale disruptions in personal and family life on behalf of serious stargazing. In some cases "amateur" does not do justice to what is more appropriately an "obsession. inch
Ferris summarizes what we have come to know about planets, stars and galaxies in the past few generations of advanced study. Again, if one has not addressed astronomy systematically since school days, this work is an outstanding 1er on our current state of understanding the heavens. There is a thorough 25-page appendix that treats of basic stargazing information, including issues of light pollution, choice of equipment, and basic star charts, and a summary of periodicals and web sites. I regretted that you have no images of any kind in the book, so we never get to see with our own eyes the standard of work produced by the newbies in our communities. Perhaps the author was deliberately setting out to pick up our curiosity, for the other day I found myself checking out the features and price tag of a little telescope at the Brookstone's in my local mall. It's been a long time since I've done that., Found it rather uninteresting. Put it down after the first 4 chapters., The publication of a new book by an author of Timothy Ferris' stature should pique the interest of most novice astronomers. Seeing in the Dark is exceptional in this regard, since the book is all about amateur astronomers.
Ferris, an avid novice observer himself, has put in the last few years visiting some prominent novice astronomers, following them as they take part in what quantities to advanced 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 at night, " along with Ferris' usual assemblage of research, storytelling, history, and culture.
As typical, Ferris has a knack for sounding quotable, as in his description of a total solar eclipse. I've read numerous balances of the powerful aesthetic experience of viewing totality, and Ferris ranks the best in words of capturing the raw mix of terror and fascination: "Suddenly the sky collapsed into darkness and a dozens of bright stars appeared. Inside their midst hung an awful, black ball, rimmed in ruby red and surrounded by the doomsday glow of the grey corona. No photograph can do justice for this terrible sight: The dynamic range from bright to dark is too great, and the colours are literally other worldly. I staggered back a few steps, such as 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 Garnishment, and many more. But few heard the anecdotes told here, of the personal motivations and triumphs of a handful of legendary sky gazers. Will be certainly even a conversation with Brian May, the lead guitar player for the rock band Queen. How many newbies know that May has a college or university 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. Typically the chapter on the moon contains a wonderful explanation of the tides on Earth, as well since the best summary I've ever before read of the various theories about the "moon size" illusion that makes the moon seem to be huge when seen close to the horizon.
Ferris' previous books have set up him as a great popularizer of science and he carries on that tradition with Viewing in the Dark. It's a simple blend of history, science and private experience that is a pleasure to see. I highly recommend this book.
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