University Lowbrow Astronomers

Seeing in the Dark By Timothy Ferris - A book review.

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections: October, 2004.

Having previously read Timothy Ferris’s book Coming of Age in the Milky Way years ago, I was overwhelmed, if not quite turned off, by the author’s extensive use of multiple syllable, little known, words of the English language, perhaps known only in academic circles of a states’ LS&A college; and run on sentences that would put this run on sentence to shame; that I never really appreciated that first encounter.  While perusing the astronomy book section at the local book store I came across the first sentence in the preface of Ferris’s most recent offering Seeing in the Dark.  “This book is about stargazing...”  Looking for yet another how-to astronomy text or lavishly photographed coffee table book for some recreational reading, this sentence intrigued me.  An astronomy book without photos or diagrams!  I decided to give Timothy Ferris another try.

Ferris is a well read and well researched author of numerous books, mostly about astronomy and cosmology.  He is extensively published in the popular press, has narrated PBS television specials, is a professor in several universities and the producer for NASA of the Voyager phonograph record that is now approaching the heliopause.  Obviously, he is an experienced and knowledgeable scholar of the universe.  I should revere anything this person authors, but typically I don’t.  As terrible as this seems, my impression of his work is that of scholastic correctness that comes from one who uses extensive information gleaned from researching the ideas of others.  That was before I read Seeing in the Dark.  Right away this book was different.  This is a book about stargazing.  Timothy Ferris is one of us; an amateur astronomer, naturalist of the night, a keeper of telescopes, a stargazer.

Ferris’s writing style is approachable in the directness of its message to the reader.  His words come quickly and are spoken from the heart.  He speaks the same language and about the same subjects that move many of us - “...for any given telescope, trained on a given object at a given time and place, there is an ideal power, a sweet spot.  Once you have found it, the trick is to keep watching, waiting for moments when turbulence settles out of the air and the eye is treated to a gratifying and tantalizing instant of clarity....”

The book’s format is a progression of topics near and dear to amateur astronomers.  A review of the recent modern history of the space age, Professor Ferris intersperses his own coming of age as an amateur astronomer growing up in Florida.  The book is broken up by short chapters on notable fellow amateurs such as Jack Newton, Steven James O. Meara, David Levy, and Don Parker.  Want to learn on how to observe the jets in M84?  Read the chapter on Texas amateur Barbara Wilson.  The book is an observer’s discussion of solar and planetary viewing, deep sky objects, and a light hearted development of our understanding of astrophysics.  Don’t worry, there are no equations here.  In Ferris’ typical style, the book is well researched.  So much so that I found myself reading along with the notes in the appendix, some which are long enough to be short stories in their own right.

Other book reviewers have indicated this text will become a must read of the likes of Leslie Peltier’s Starlight Nights.  I don’t know if that is true, perhaps time will tell, but it is an excellent read and a book that I strongly recommend to every amateur astronomer.


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