University Lowbrow Astronomers


by Tom Ryan
Printed in Reflections:  July, 1997.

Doug Warshaw and I were talking the other day about books on optics and telescope design, and I thought that a list of books that I’ve found to be above average might be of interest to other Lowbrows, especially if it had brief descriptions of the book’s contents.  Most of the books are available for perusal at the University of Michigan’s Engineering Library in the Media Union on North Campus.  You don’t need a U of M Library card to look at them.  You can buy them through Border’s or Willman-Bell.  The list isn’t in any particular order.


This is the best general book on optical engineering that I know of.  It covers the whole field of optical engineering with clear, understandable text and illustrations.  This is not a book on theoretical optics, but describes how light can be utilized and the devices that accomplish this.

If there’s a topic you’re interested in, and Smith doesn’t have something to say about it, you’re going to have to search a whole lot harder to find it elsewhere.

Incidentally, this is the first book I ever bought.  I was 15 years old, working in a city library with all the books there at my disposal, and this was the one book I wanted to own.

TELESCOPE OPTICS, by Rutten and van Venrooij

This remarkable book covers telescope optics; reflectors, refractors, eyepieces, field correctors, image aberrations, manufacturing tolerances, optical calculations and telescope design.  It even comes with a program that lets you design telescopes and lenses, and raytrace optics of your own design.  And even though the program is a little clunky, it works.

One nice feature of this book is the raytrace diagrams the authors included (made with the program that comes with the book) when they discuss different telescopes.  Ever wonder how the images at the edge of a Schmidt-Cass field compare to those in a Tri-Schiefspiegler?  This book shows you.


If you want to make a telescope, this book has the best description of that process.  Reading this book is not the best way to make a telescope.  The best way is to have someone show you.  But after you’ve made one, you can read this book and say, “Yep, he’s right about that!” 


An advanced book, and expensive, but very complete in describing the methods of testing optics.  It is mostly concerned with interferometric testing because that’s what most professionals use, but it also discusses Foucault, Ronchi, Hartmann, Star, and Null tests.  Each chapter covers a different test method, and is either written by an expert on that test, or by the test’s inventor. 


The best book for designing the mechanical parts of optical systems.  Its all here; lens cell clearances, mirror cell design, deflection, characteristics of materials used in optical mounts, structural design, common practice in mounting lens systems, corrosion control and adhesives.  If you’re building something that has to work right, this is a good place to start. 

AMATEUR TELESCOPE MAKING I, II, and III, ed. by Albert Ingalls

I have spent many, many pleasant hours reading and re-reading these three seminal books on telescope making.  They describe practically every aspect of amateur telescope making, and I’m always delighted to see the author of an article accomplish some amazing feat of creation using only common tools and his own ingenuity, and discover that I, too, could probably do what he was describing.

These books were written in the 20’s and 30’s in a style that always gives me the impression that I’ve just had a conversation with an old friend.  Probably the only books in literature that can rival these are the laboratory practice books by John Strong.

There are many other books on optics that deserve an Honorable Mention, but my experience is that most of them use an entire book to add only one or two additional facts to my body of knowledge, or that they are concerned with aspects of optics that don’t concern me.  Your own interests may cover a wider range than the above books do, and if the editor of this newsletter gets a request for info on any particular subject, or on some book that I’ve left out, I can recommend and review a wider list in the future.

These books, however, certainly deserve a place on the 100 Parsec Shelf of your library.


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