REVIEW: Astronomy Hacks
candace at epistolary.net
Sun Jun 18 22:47:21 BST 2006
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
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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