University Lowbrow Astronomers

Seeing the Deep Sky by Fred Schaaf (a Book Review).

by Paul Walkowski
Printed in Reflections:  February, 2000.

This book is great fun, I really mean this.  I have star hopping books that are so dry they can suck all the dew off of the ground and still leave a dry spot in your throat large enough for Arizona.  They jump into lengthy tables of star spectra without a hint of explanation, parsec this, pontificate that, prognosticate the other thing and pretty soon I am sure that I am a woodworker with a telescope and not an amateur astronomer.  Enter Fred Schaaf.  He wrote this book with fire, charisma, and the story telling ability of Garrison Keelor (It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegone...).

I had not the slightest interest in splitting binaries and the color of stars before this book, and now I want to buy the book just to work through the wonderful experiments, tables, and explanations.  Like a tall iced tea after a long summer’s day of splitting wood, I could not put the book down.  It was written at an advanced high school to middle college level, but each chapter was a story that started out with a bit of verse, a pep talk to build your enthusiasm for the subject matter, a teaching section where he conversationally introduced the essential vocabulary as well as the subject matter, a table of where to find lots of things just like he was talking about in the sky, one paragraph explaining the significance of each entry in the table, and then an assignment to have at it:  “Go out and ambush a turquoise and ruby binary pair, and keep it in your journal.”  Each chapter is a 20-30 minute read, and the exercise proposed can take that long again or all night, if you’d like.  The book progresses through things like near and far away stars and objects, the colors of stars and binaries, and on through galactic (open) and globular clusters, ending in galaxies and clusters thereof.

My criticisms of the book are few:  the book was too short, and too interesting -- I sometimes read for 3 hours without putting it down leaving no time to actually look at stars, and there was an absence of star maps that would have made it a better stand alone field guide.  But since everyone I know has such strong opinions on star atlases, maybe he was right to leave them out.  So if you’re looking for a book to rekindle your astro fire, engage a new amateur, or are just plain tired of looking at the same old 20 familiar objects at a star party, buy the book.  I have the only library copy and won’t be giving it back for at least 59 more days.

Oh yes, this is really the second volume of a 2 volume set, the first being about the sun, planets, comets, and asteroids.


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