Astronomy Hacks

Author: Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson



Publisher: O'Reilly

Reviewed by: Candace Partridge

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 index!

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.