07 January 2006

Free virtual astronomy observing book

Pointed out to me by Jethereal, Universe Today is offerring a book online for free download that lists 365 Days of Skywatching, so I figured I'd do my first book review!

Plotner, Tammy. What's Up 2006: 365 days of Skywatching. Universe Today, USA, 2006.

This 400+ page virtual book is designed to be kept on your hard drive and individual pages printed when needed.

Twelve pages of foreword discuss background information for the beginning observer, such as what equipment is recommended, night vision adjustment, and light pollution. It does not unfortunately discuss tips on how to stay warm, which any observer not in the tropics will tell you can be a daunting and critical task. I find this lack to be quite surprising in what is meant to be a beginner's observational book. Perhaps in Ohio, where Plotner is from, winter nights do not et quite as cold, but considering that tonight's forecast for Toledo (Jan 7, 2006) predicts it will go down to 29ºF, that is unlikely. While Plotner may have simply overlooked warmth, a further reading of the book indicates that she did not truly have a beginning audience in mind.

The meat of the book has each page dedicated to a day of the year 2006. Each night, a few paragraphs describe good sources for you to look for, appropriate to that date. Examples include many Messier objects, the brighter of the NGCs, and meteor showers. Directions for finding the objects take the typical form of star hopping: "locate Theta Ophiuchi and head south-southeast less than a finger-width. There you will find small, 9.5 magnitude globular NGC 6355." These directions are sufficient if the reader also owns a Norton's Atlas or equivalent set of star maps. What I was expecting from a book of this level was some simple star charts in addition to the written directions and photographs of the resulting object. While the book claims to contain them ("Thanks to the good folks at Sky and Telescope magazine, we’ve provided you with some “sky view” charts to help guide the way," pg I), they were not actually in evidence within the book, nor is there a clear link to where they can be found online.

Another challenge beginning observers face is that objects through the telescope are not as bright and crisp as objects in pictures. The book gives a head-nod to this fact with rare descriptions such as "skybright [light pollution] will make this huge, low surface brightness spiral difficult for even telescopes," (March 27, pg 89) but there is no acknowledgment that even the brightest objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy (M31, same page) will suffer from high expectations. The technique of averted vision helps when dim objects are hard to find, and although this is mentioned in passing in the text with certain faint objects ("NGC 2419 can be seen on dark sky occasions in instruments as small as a spotting scope - although you will need to avert your vision to see it," March 18, pg 80; also M13, July 29, pg 217, and others), no general instructions are given in the introduction.

At the end of the book there's an extensive list of observing resources from the internet, as well as brief biographies and descriptions of people and organizations contributing to the book (and of course their webpages).

This observational book appears at first glance to be a beginner's guide to observing with tips on how to buy a good telescope. However to the more experienced observer it is clear that there are large gaps and assumptions that the author made about her audience. I recommend this book for intermediate to advanced amateur astronomers, and professional astronomers who have limited experience with backyard observing. If you are a beginner, you would do well to start instead with a Norton's Atlas and 2006 Observer's Handbook, or a guide specifically designed for beginners, and slowly build up the skills and knowledge required as prerequisites to using Tammy Plotner's What's Up 2006: 365 days of Skywatching.

ETA: There is further discussion on the Universe Today / Bad Astronomy forums.


Anonymous said...

I thank you for your kind comments. It does indeed get very cold in Ohio - why we even have coats!

Please realize that I am smiling here... Being able to take constructive criticism is the hallmark of a good writer. I simply took it for granted that most observers would know how to dress accordingly for weather conditions.

When the book was originally designed, it contained not only monthly "all sky charts" but an additional download of charts that review all objects mentioned. Due to space limitations and download file size, we are trying our best to get them incorporated in a way which will help the reader who perhaps doesn't have a sky atlas.

And no one will more strongly agree than myself that with the exception of lunar photos, pictures do not capture what can be seen at the eyepiece. I would love to incorporate some more "realistic" views in a subsquent book and invite any photographers out there interested to please contact me!

While "365 Days" isn't everyone's cup of tea, it's my sincere hope that folks will find just a little something within its pages to encourage a love of SkyWatching! Thank you again for taking the time to give it a look!



zandperl said...

Tammy, thanks for the comments/clarifications. That's a shame that the finder charts had to be edited out of this edition, but the size constraints make sense.

You're right that pictures really aren't the same as looking through a telescope, and now that you mention it it's probably quite hard to capture what you really see. When I was a kid I went to an observatory and saw Saturn through a telescope and I was amazed at how much it looked just like the (Voyager I and II) pictures. Today, my students are always disappointed that it doesn't look anything like the (HST) pictures! :-P

As for the warm clothes, I've taught astronomy to 7th grade through college, and while the majority of people are smart about it, some come in shorts and sandals in the winter. Yes, experienced observers and most people with common sense know to wear warm clothes, but newbies might not. Even people who actually pause to think about it often don't consider that when you're observing, you're not moving at all, so you'll be colder than if you were out on a jog, for example.

Additionally, many people don't realize that the caffeine in their hot coffee can affect the circulation and therefore make them lose heat in their extremeties. Ditto nicotine in cigarettes and alcohol.

It definitely is a nice book that you've produced, and when I next get out to somewhere dark to observe I intend to bring a few pages along with me. :)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the next version can include eyepiece impressions (sketches) of how various classes of studies actually appear through backyard equipment. There was some discussion of this between the authors initially but the project size soon swelled and hard choices had to be made. Your comments suggest that at least a few such sketches should be included in the future. I know that both Tammy and I have such sketches on our respective websites

- jeff Barbour astro.geekjoy.com

zandperl said...

I'm impressed with the sketches on your website, especially seeing how the Mars ones improved over time. I think that would be useful for beginners, as it shows how their observation skills will improve, which many beginners don't realize.

Another thing it occurred to me could be included is more discussion of various distortions, such as poor seeing, and chromatic abberation.

There's so many things to include, I think you did a good job of balancing the core important aspects of the book with everything else you really wanted to include. Without the things you cut, it's a very good intermediate level observing guide - my point was just that it isn't a beginning level book. If you in the future manage to get those other items back in, it'll be an awesome intermediate and beginner level guide. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi All,

Thought I'd bring some closure to the twin issues of charts and sketches zandperl brought up in this hoary old thread. - Sort of an epilogue if you will.

Eventually, the star charts intended for "365 Days" were later published on the Lulu website. The charts are unusual in that they incorporate the concept of "optimal aperture" as it is explained on astro.geekjoy.com.

Basically each of the 500 plus studies plotted on the charts is appended with an aperture value (in centimeters) that tells the viewer what the minimum size scope that will give a good view of the study under 5.5 sky observing conditions.

The Astro.Geeekjoy Deep Sky Atlas also includes a number of short articles on amateur observing plus a few eyepiece impressions intended to show what an observer using an optimal aperture scope can hope to see through the eyepiece under optimal sky conditions (stars to magnitude 5.5 visible unaided neighboring the study.

You can download an example of the charts at the Golden Phoenix Arts website. Just click on the PDF Preview link below the description.

And oh yes, Tammy has released the 2007 edition of "365 Days".

Carpe Noctem,
Jeff Barbour Astro.Geekjoy.Com

PS: I will discuss releasing the entire series of charts for free as a PDF, but recommend readers order the color bound version from Lulu if they want something to take out observing with them and want to use it to log their observations...