University Lowbrow Astronomers

1001 Nights to Conquering the Cosmos (42 Years of Regular Attendance at Peach Mountain Open Houses).

by Lorna Simmons
Printed in Reflections:  December, 1998.

I always get a laugh from books which claim that it will only take, for an example, 21 days to learn anything.  When you begin to read these books, you realize that they are writing about 24-hour days!  So I have simply selected 1001, an arbitrary number that Scheherazade would have understood, because, if she had not spun 1001 nights of magnificent tales for her Shah, her days would have been decidedly numbered.  Period!  On the other hand, you may have 1001 enchanted nights waiting for you!

In my case, I think that it takes a little time of real viewing at a dark site to get to know the constellations, let alone to learn the night sky.  And when one realizes that the figure of twice each month, considering Michigan weather, is overly optimistic, you would be lucky to get only a little viewing in each year.  So, even if you went out to Peach Mountain for every open house, it might take a little time to learn the night sky, so you should be patient.  It could be much better to move to an out-of-the-way place and speed up the process.  Dream on!

There are several books for beginning observers which are helpful in getting you over the difficulties of finding your way around the sky.  One of these is 365 Starry Nights, by Chet Raymo, who is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts.  This book will give the rank newcomer an idea of how to find various important and easily-accessible astronomical objects, most of which can be viewed where there is a modest amount of light pollution--so one should not be eternally disappointed.  What you do with this book is turn the pages until you arrive at the present date and begin the book there.  Chet Raymo makes learning the sky a pleasant task and gives definite dates on which to look for definite objects.  In this way, you will more easily learn the constellations and important objects so that when you want to find more difficult astronomical objects, you will be able to star hop (to be discussed in later issues) to them from the familiar places mentioned in this book.

Another book on a similar theme is The Sierra Club Guide to Sky Watching and Direction Finding:  Stars and Planets, by W. S. Kals.  It is full of good advice for finding your way around the sky from the easily viewed brighter stars.  There are great basic charts for learning the major star formations which can be easily seen in the Northern Hemisphere and from which you can star hop to other celestial delights.  It is a good basic beginner’s book for sky watching.  I have one criticism of the book.  There is a minor problem:  The pictures are about a father and son.  I feel that I was lucky to have had the kind of father that I had one who introduced me to the Milky Way when I was three with a discussion of “infinity.”  The idea boggled my mind, the sky was magnificent, and I never forgot the event, down to the smallest detail.  So you fathers who have girls.  You never know how important this is!  I know that the Lowbrow men have great daughter observers.  Those lucky, lucky daughters (and lucky sons, of course).

To the rescue comes another book:  Discover Planet Watch: A Year-Round Viewing Guide to the Night Sky with a Make-Your-Own Planetfinder, by Clint Hatchett, which has a father with his daughter on the cover (making my day [night?] when I saw it).  It includes many projects for father and kids.  There is a lot of information which might have been left out of some of the other books and, therefore, works well in conjunction with other skywatching books for beginners.  There is a lot of good viewing advice about observing the objects in the Solar System, and there are a lot of informative charts.  The book, itself, is not gender specific, and I would recommend it for all beginners, adult and child.

Now, we come to the book, 40 Nights to Knowing the Sky: A Night-By-Night Skywatching Primer, by Fred Schaaf, a veteran astronomer and a well-known writer of books on astronomy.  This book is recommended by Sky and Telescope, Astronomy, Publishers Weekly and by Chet Raymo, author of 365 Starry Nights, discussed above, so it should be a must-read for amateur astronomers.  It is divided into 40 sections, one for each viewing night, and has useful Appendices giving important information and tables to help you get through your 40 nights successfully.  Incidentally, at Peach Mountain, that would take about two years (when it does not rain, or is not cloudy).  I think that part of the 40 Nights is to be spent reading and studying the book itself, helping the reader get through the book in a timely fashion.

A familiar problem:  Things look much different when you actually look at the night sky.  The constellations are not those tiny little squiggles that you might see on a small planisphere, but are huge, gigantic, awesome.  Also, there are other stars which confuse your viewing, and the constellations often seem to intermingle with each other so as to perplex the observer.  When you think you know what you are doing, later on in the evening you will have quite a different view of the sky and will need to start all over again, looking for the original constellations with which you began the night.  Many of them will have disappeared completely.  Bummer!  Do not give up.  Success is just around the corner.  Be thankful for small improvements.

These books are only a beginning.  They are good for all neophytes and will help you learn how to find some of the things you are hankering for.  Do not be discouraged; perhaps it will take less than 40 years (a little joke).  If it does not take 1001 nights, then everything is a big plus.  Soon you may be up and running, attending the Messier Marathons which challenge many an amateur astronomer.  Or you might just wish to find all of the interesting deep-sky objects (a seemingly impossible dream).  Or it might be planets.  Some of you could hunt down asteroids and comets.  Others might enjoy solar astronomy (with the right equipment).  Whatever find your astronomical niche.

Perhaps we could change the initial prescription to “1001 hours,” or “1001 minutes,” and make it an achievable goal.  “1001 seconds,” anyone?

And then, if the challenge is too great, you might curl up with an astronomical tome, get into an imaginary mind-set, and forget all about the real night sky.

Or, in desperation, you could visit Peach Mountain and let our wonderful Lowbrow Astronomers, amateur astronomers “extraordinaire,” find these objects for you for free!  However, to be truthful, it is much more exciting to find them yourselves.  So, while you are at it, bring your binoculars and/or your telescope(s) and/or camera(s) along and join the crowd!


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