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December 05, 2022

Backyard Astronomy: Foul Weather Astronomy (2004-02-07)

By Cheryl Haimann

Winter can be harsh for amateur astronomers. Cold, dry nights are usually excellent for observing. On the other hand, winter nights in many places can just as easily be wet, icy, windy, and dangerously frigid. And driving out on lonely country roads to a dark site at midnight when 7 inches of snow is forecast? I don't think so.

It seems like weeks since we've had decent weather for anything but the most cursory glance at the sky. I asked my husband Terry, "How do you keep your enthusiasm up when you can't go observing for awhile?" He didn't miss a beat. "I read."

Now that's the kind of foul-weather astronomy I can get into. Terry has all kinds of techy and telescope-intensive astronomy books, but I grilled him until he came up with a few favorites of more general interest.

His first recommendation was Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, Twentieth Edition, edited by Ian Redpath (Pi Press, 2004). If you are ready to move beyond picking out constellations, Norton's is an excellent first step. The star charts are detailed, but not too detailed. They show objects as faint as magnitude 6.5, approximately what you can see with the naked eye in clear, dark skies. Add binoculars and these objects should be visible in less pristine conditions. Keyed to each map is a list of interesting objects - variable and double stars, clusters, nebulas, and galaxies.

But this book is more than maps. It is a good basic introduction to astronomy, with sections on the solar system, equipment, and understanding time and place as they relate to astronomy. There are a lot of tables and formulas, such as "Orbital elements of some visual binaries," which can be positively frightening to those of us who bypassed physics on our way to adulthood. Don't be put off, though. There is still a lot of plain-speaking explanation in the book. Even when the talk gets a little geeky, it is still possible to follow along.

The liberal arts major's (meaning "my") antidote to Norton's is Starry Night: Astronomers and Poets Read the Sky, by David H. Levy (Prometheus Books, 2001). Comet hunter Levy started out studying physics and chemistry at university, but found himself more interested in the universe according to Gerald Manley Hopkins and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In this book, he uses historical science to illuminate the poetry of its time, and vice versa. Shakespeare, for example, is studied in tandem with the scientific knowledge of the time, such as the investigations of Tycho Brahe.

What a coincidence, then, that Terry's favorite book about historical astronomy is Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership ThatForever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens, by Kitty Ferguson (Walker and Company, 2002). Tycho Brahe was a Danish nobleman in the 16th century who became interested in astronomy while at university. Specifically, he wondered why some astronomical calculations for planets were very accurate while others were wildly wrong, and he set out to improve them. In these days before telescopes, he had to invent most of the tools he needed for his observations.

Tycho was looking for a way to explain planetary motion that would conform to the old and somewhat discredited belief that the Earth was at the center of the solar system, as well as the universe. He hired mathematicians and astronomers to help him collect and interpret data. Johannes Kepler was one of those mathematicians, and was staunch Copernican who believed the sun was at the center of the solar system. His analysis of the data eventually proved, not Tycho's point, but his own, and helped him develop theories of planetary motion that are still used today.

If your interests lean toward science fiction, check out The Physics of Star Trek, by Lawrence M. Krauss (Basic Books, 1995). Krauss is a professor of physics and astronomy who takes on some the conventions of the Star Trek universe and wrestles them to the ground. Warp drive? There might be a loophole in Einstein's theories that could make it work. Replicators? Inefficient, and the food would be boring. Beam Me Up, Scotty? Not very likely. He also gives credit where they got it right, such as referring to a "black star" in the original series before the term "black hole" had even been used in public. Krauss's 1997 follow-up, Beyond Star Trek, continues on the same theme, but branches out to look at X-Files, Star Wars, and more.

Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-07
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