REVIEW: Astronomy Hacks

candace candace at
Sun Jun 18 22:47:21 BST 2006

Astronomy Hacks
by Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson

Astronomy Hacks is yet another installment in the series from the good 
people at O'Reilly. This is actually not the first book that O'Reilly 
has done about something astronomy-related since they published a 
SETI-related tome in 2001 (Beyond Contact by Brian McConnell), however 
it is still somewhat an anomaly.  Still, they did Mind Hacks, so why 
not Astronomy Hacks?

Coming from O'Reilly, such a book would have a task of balancing its 
audience and addressing the hard-core as well as the newbies. This book 
was mostly geared towards beginner observers -- those who have gotten 
their feet wet in the great Astronomy Sea, but who are hungry to 
waste...I mean, invest more time, money, and energy into the hobby.  It 
includes sections on how to select binoculars, the pros and cons of 
various types of telescopes, and how to select quality accessories.  
There are also various hacks that go beyond the beginner level and 
cover more advanced topics like scope collimation, mirror cleaning, 
running a Messier Marathon, and so on.

Like the other 'Hacks' books in the O'Reilly series, Astronomy Hacks 
consists of four major chapters subdivided into ten to twenty hacks per 
chapter.  The four major chapters cover: Getting Started, Observing 
Hacks, Scope Hacks, and Accessory Hacks.  And yes indeedy, there is an 

Overall, Astronomy Hacks is pretty densely packed with common-sense 
guidance for observers new and old. A lot of the hacks are simple and 
clear and involve being resourceful, like all great hacks do.  The 
authors are obviously very hardcore amateur astronomers and they really 
know their stuff.

There are some great encouraging bits for beginners in the Getting 
Started section, starting with Hack #1: 'Don't Give Up!' I also 
appreciated that Hack #4 was 'Stay Warm', since under-dressing is 
something that beginners perpetually get wrong.  These little touches 
that take the sting out of standing around in the dark and cold while 
fiddling with bits of kit are both useful and heartening.  Also, Hack 
#10: 'Equip yourself for Urban Observing' is solid advice for those of 
us who live under the London light dome.

The later hacks get more into the nitty gritty of things.  The 
Observing Hacks cover things from dark-adapting your eyes and using red 
filtered lights, to making sketches of what one sees through the 
eyepiece. This section sort of goes without saying for the more 
experienced, but it does a good job of explaining things like 
magnitudes and surface brightness.  It also touches on the celestial 
coordinate system, star hopping, and urban observing skills, which are 
all fundamental.

Scope and Accessory Hacks include upgrading the bearings on a Dobsonian 
mount, picking a good arsenal of eyepieces, and dark adapting your 
laptop for field use.  These hacks are solid advice and even fairly 
seasoned observers will pick up a very handy nugget or two of 
information.  The Scope Hacks section is overtly Newtonian-centric, so 
it ends up being completely irrelevant to some people (like me). 
Otherwise, the Accessory Hacks section is probably by far the most 
insightful section for the more experienced observers. Hack #51 on how 
to 'build' an occulting eyepiece is pretty ace.

However, the overly didactic tone of voice can be very irritating at 
times.  Like computer geeks, astronomy geeks can be a bunch of 
over-opinionated blowhards.  At times, this book is dripping with the 
authors' opinions when they are supposed to be simply providing gentle 
guidance and/or an overview for the reader.  Really, I appreciate the 
chivalrous gesture of refusing to leave a group of silly helpless women 
alone at night (god forbid!), but no thanks; and REALLY, I don't fancy 
packing heat when going up to observe on Hampstead Heath like they 
suggest in Hack #3. The pronunciation key for various bodies is also 
amusing, even if they admit that 'Vega is properly pronounced WAY-guh, 
but if you say that way people think you're strange.'  Indeed.  So why 
bring it up?

Even in the scope buying section (Hack #9), they again veer off into 
crazy obnoxious opinion land when they unceasingly laud the glories of 
Dobsonian telescopes while slagging off all other types of scope at 
hand.  Different people have different reasons for choosing their 
particular type of telescope, just like programmers choose different 
tools for their needs.  This doesn't necessarily mean that one tool or 
telescope is any better than the others overall, merely that some are 
better suited for certain purposes than others.  Dobsonians are 
great...I just can't lug one on the train so easily.

This book is like lurking on a mailing list for fairly hardcore amateur 
astronomers, absorbing the information for at least a year, and then 
distilling it into a handy dandy book.  Astronomy Hacks is essentially 
a FAQ-from-hell about observing and is really quite useful.


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