In another incarnation of another life, I used to work in a sort of hobby store which sold, among other things, telescopes. When I started work there, I knew little to nothing about the intricacies of magnification and filters, but fortunately, I had a patient colleague who was willing to explain things – often more than once – clearly and concisely. I’m also a quick study, if I say so myself. I had always wanted a telescope of my own as a child, but it was another of those fondly held wishes which was never granted. But I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy, even in subtle ways that I sometimes forget, like having the nine planets (yes, I said nine) in a montage of current images as my desktop picture. When I go outside on a clear night, you can always spot me; I’m the one looking up.
Of course, there’s a lot to learn about telescopes before you can use one, never mind selling one. These days, it’s often important to explain that when you take your telescope out into a darkened field and point it at the heavens, you’re not going to see things like a Hubble Space Telescope image would present them. Instead, the sky will look more like the illustrations in a book on astronomy published in the 1930s, because, without some serious technology, classical astronomy is very much limited by the human eye’s ability to gather light. That doesn’t mean, of course, that anyone shouldn’t be enthusiastic about using a telescope, which vastly improves your individual light-gathering chances. You can see amazing things in the night sky, with just a little time, patience, planning – and of course, money to invest.
Our mantra in the shop (it was just my colleague and me who adopted this, but I’m pretending that still counts) used to be that telescope customers required three visits to the shop before they would make their purchase. The first was to discover that there was a place that actually sold real telescopes, and had them for display. The second was to decide which one was going to be the best for them. And the third was to finally come in and part with the cash – anywhere in the $200 to $1,000 range, in most cases – for the scope, eyepieces, filters, and whatever else they needed to get set up. Explanations of what all this gear would do were complicated and time consuming, but once I’d learned what I needed to know (and how to find answers when I didn’t know them), it became a real pleasure to share the possibilities with people. I was finally given a telescope by my wife as a birthday present, and that also was a great help to my ability to explain and sell telescopes; my own trials and tribulations with observing made it easier to aid others.
The point of all this maundering around in memory is that the most important thing we could really recommend, the thing that would really help someone on their way, was a good, thorough book. Strangely, this was something that most people didn’t take to heart at first, but often came back looking for. And there are many, many guides for amateur astronomers to choose from: it’s a pretty full market.
But one of the best of them that I’ve encountered is The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. Now in its fourth edition, the Guide is a thorough, well-written, and well-illustrated beginner’s guide to all aspects of the hobby. From choosing telescopes and eyepieces to observing with the naked eye to astrophotography, this book covers it all.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Astronomy is a field that has progressed by leaps and bounds, and will continue to do so. Everything that we know about Pluto, for example, will be radically altered in the coming years, following the New Horizons encounter with that distant world on 14 July 2015 (humanity now waits, quite literally, for the download to finish so we can see all of the probe’s data). And telescope technology for the amateur observer covers a lot of ground, from a $100 entry-level reflector to a $10,000 Schmitt-Cassegrain complete with astrophotography rig. For that matter, astrophotography equipment improves steadily too, so a standard reference book could hardly hope to keep up.
But what does remain the same are the fundamentals of choosing a telescope (or binocular), how, when, and what to observe, how to find your way around the sky at night (with and without a star chart), and all of the basics that anyone needs to get the most out of astronomy as a hobby. If you’re choosing between a reflector telescope and a refractor (or even a Schmitt-Cassegrain), with a Dobsonian, Alt-Azimuth, or Equatorial mount, this is the sort of book to make the differences, and their respective advantages and disadvantages, plain. Should you buy four eyepieces for your new scope, or two eyepieces and a Barlow lens? Where is the best place to try to observe the sky if you live in a city, with all of the by-product light pollution? Will you be able to see Mars and Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury? What about Vesta, or Ceres? Galaxies and star clusters? This book will tell you.
There are a few things that The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide is not. It does not provide star maps (although there are other excellent books which do), nor will it tell you what is up in the sky on a given night. However, between publications like Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, and BBC Sky at Night magazines (for the northern hemisphere, anyway), not to mention a large number of mobile phone applications which act as observing aids, finding what should be visible in the night sky can be the easiest part of the night.
Whether you’ve been interested in the skies forever, or have just been exposed to the beauties of the night sky for the first time, The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide is a book that you should certainly read, if not own. Finding the most current edition will give you a great base on which to build up your astronomical skills, knowledge, and understanding. It can be a daunting task, but one which is, in the end, eminently rewarding. For this book, five stars. Recommended.
Reviewed 8 October 2015.
Find a copy on AbeBooks.com.