University Lowbrow Astronomers

My 10 Favorite Astronomy Books.

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections: February, 2010.

Recently having cleaned out a bunch of old issues of Sky & Telescope magazines from years past, I came upon a reoccurring article titled ‘My 10 Favorite Deep-Sky Wonders’. It made me think that some day I’ll write a similar article for our club newsletter, but not just yet (still working on that list). Instead I thought how about writing an article about my 10 favorite Astronomy books. Like many of my fellow Lowbrows, I have a personal collection of astronomy books that I have read over the years; and, still wrap my self around some of these texts during the long cold and cloudy Michigan winters. If you need astro book recommendations, then you have come to the right place. So here is my top 10 list, presented in no particular order....

1. A Brief History of Time, From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawkings, 1988. This is the book that started my interest in all things astronomy. Someone gave me a copy of this book; I started reading it, and couldn’t put it down. Many of you are aware, that this was the book that thrust Stephen Hawkings into popular public notoriety. Its very easy reading on the complicated subject of the creation of the Universe, our passage through this thing called time, and the existence of Black Holes. It is also simply illustrated in a way that allows us understand some very complicated cosmological theories. During the reading of this book, I started going outside of the house and looking up at the night sky. Shortly after that I joined the Lowbrows, and as they say, the rest is history.

2. The Alchemy of the Heavens, Searching for Meaning in the Milky Way by Ken Croswell, 1995. Aside from being just another book that attempts to describe the Universe, or more specifically our Milky Way, this book provides an excellent understanding of the chemical workings (alchemy) of stars, dust and gas; and, galaxies. If some of you are like me, the study of chemistry in high school and collage did not come easy, but after reading this book, I found that the author describes this subject in a way that anyone with a general interest in the formation of stars and galaxies can understand. I have read this book twice and will probably read it again in the future. While not a book for scholastic pushovers, it is highly recommend for those agreeable to applying your gray matter to understanding the galaxy you live in.

3. Starlight Nights, The Adventures of a Star-Gazer by Leslie C. Peltier, 1965. An autobiography with illustrations (very good ones I might say) by the author. What can I say about this book except if you call yourself an amateur astronomer, you have better have read it. The story chronicles life in the first half of the 1900s from the coming of age, through adulthood of the epic comet discoverer and variable star observer Leslie Peltier. Written in the style of a popular novel, one could think this was science fiction but it is science fact. The updated 1999 Sky Publishing version comes with many additional photographs that further illustrate this amateur’s amateur astronomer’s life. Don’t be caught not having read this astronomy tome or else you risk losing your amateur status.

4. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, 1980. If you are middle age, and many of our members are; you lived through America’s Space Age and the landing of men on the Moon. What book would you pick to best represent that time in our history? Well for me this book best documents the early days of America’s development of high performance jet aircraft from the X-15 to flying in (and crashing) the F-104, as well as NASA’s early Mercury and Apollo programs. So strap you harness in tight, cause you gonna need it. OK, so this book blurs the line between reporting on historic fact and just plain entertainment. Do I care? Heck no girls! This book is dripping with testosterone. If you don’t get enough here, I suggest you read Chuck Yeager’s 1985 Autobiography by the same name. [PS—Editor Emeritus Note—I really must talk to this guy on the importance of being PC.]

5. Black Holes & Time Warps, Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy by Kip S. Thorne, 1994. 600 pages of topics devoted to Relativity, Space and Time, Black Holes, White Dwarfs, and Time Travel written by one of the modern age’s foremost cosmological theorist. Voted as the one book I would want to be stranded with on a deserted island (along with a good star atlas and never ending supply of Yuengling Black-and-Tan. Hey, why should I suffer?). Well illustrated with diagrams and photographs. Highly recommended to those among us that need professional help in understanding all things cosmological.

Intermission: Raging Bitc_, Flying Dog Brewery, Frederick, MD, Floral, fruitiness nose, this 20th anniversary brew packs a full IPU flavor with attitude. Dirty Bastar_, Founders Brewing, Grand Rapids, MI, Earthy bourbon smoothness with a bit of a dry ending. Gonzo Imperial Porter, Flying Dog Brewery, Frederick, MD, No better porter will you ever have. Deep chocolate richness that borders on an Imperial Stout.

6. The Perfect Machine, Building the Palomar Telescope by Ronald Florenee, 1994. An absolutely amazing story about George Hale’s building of the 200-inch telescope and observatory on Palomar Mountain in southern California in the first half of the 1900s. I enjoyed this book so much, after leaving a copy at a car rental near LAX, I bought another copy. Here is a hyperlink to my trip to Palomar with some pics in a hope to get you interested in reading this book—

7. Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr., 1998. A true story about a young man growing up in the coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia during the 60s at the time of Russia’s Sputnik launch. If you love rockets, then this book is for you. Part human drama on what it was like to live in an Appalachian coal-mining town, and part an understanding of the initial development of amateur rocketry. You may have heard of the movie based on this book, titled October Sky. As good as the movie was, the book is better. Not many books support the movie version as well as this book does in my opinion.

8. Deep-Sky Wonders by Walter Scott Houston, 1999. This book is a compilation of many years of the author’s Sky & Telescope column. Organized by monthly observing programs for amateur astronomers. ‘Scotty’ as he was affectionately known by amateurs everywhere, writes on his observations by shedding new light on common objects, bring our attention to overlooked objects, and collecting insights from Sky & Telescope readers. This book has caused me to spend large amounts of time pouring over star charts following up on new objects to observe.

9. Seeing in the Dark, How Amateur Astronomers are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe by Timothy Ferris, 2002. See my previously report on this book at— Many Lowbrows know about this book having attended a lecture given by the author as part of the 2009 Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads Program. Highly recommended.

10. Brother Astronomer, Adventures of a Vatican Scientist by Brother Guy Consolmagno, 2000. Upon hearing Brother Guy was coming to Ann Arbor to give a talk to the Lowbrows, I read this book so I could have a better understanding about the speaker (Note to self—Next time don’t miss the lecture unhappy face). The author, raised in southeast Michigan, is a Jesuit Brother, Planetary Scientist, and curator of the Vatican’s meteorite collection. Brother Guy engages his reader in the religion versus science debate that has gone on since the early days of the church. He does a great job at defusing preconceptions of perceived conflicts between the study of theology and science with out offending his reader. I came away with a respect of his place in science and a real sense of enjoyment about reading of his pursuit of meteorites during his expedition to the Antarctic.

So there it is. I could have listed my top 20 books for there are so many great texts out there for us amateur astronomers. If you have some books you would recommend, I would like to see your list of your 10 favorite Astronomy Books. After all, I am always looking for more great Astronomy Books!


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