Book Review: Astronomy: Eyewitness Companions

There’s nothing like spending a warm summer’s evening sitting in pitch black while letting your eyes soar to the vaults of the heavens. A few twinkling hot shot stars steal the show, then more subtle but equally charming fine points of light gradually fill in the blank spots. Eventually, with eyes fully adapted to the dark, the heavens are ablaze with a panorama of elegance and variety. Accumulating years of people’s effort brings sense and order to this menagerie. Ian Ridpath with his book Astronomy makes a wonderful little guide for observers looking for a little sense, and it may turn a summer fling with the stars into a longer affair.

Astronomy is, in its purest state, the observation of the stars. But no viewer can help but wonder why differences abound throughout the night sky. Many shades and hues give a sense of distinct colours. Pin points of light contrast with distributed shapes and give a sense of size and scale. And the occasional fly by of a flamboyant comet reminds us all of the passage of time and the uniqueness of the moment. Astronomers at all levels take these nuances to help them understand the subtleties.

Ridpath, in his book ‘Astronomy’ sets forth details to accommodate both the observational and intellectual side of astronomy. He and a team of writers, editors and designers aim to provide a wide ranging introduction to our universe and the objects within. He’s achieved this goal. His book begins by stepping through the relevant history. In particular, he uses advances in technology that resulted in advances in astronomy. For instances, telescopes reinforced the heliocentric nature of the solar system, spectral analysis led to the understanding of a star’s contents while satellites brought us images we’d never see from the Earth’s surface. Though fairly complete, the book travels the safe and well trodden path, with few forays into the edge of astronomy lore as we know it today. This beginning of the book is the intellectual side.

Following this, the book takes off to the skies. First stop is our own solar system. Each planet and the Earth’s moon have a few pages dedicated to them. The contents is a mix of detail and observational information. The detail extends through the understood composition of the planet, its surface features and its atmosphere. Lots of eye candy bring the subjects into stark, glorious view, whether an aurora over Jupiter or the broad faults on Ariel’s surface. A brief note on observing the subject with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope sets the observational info.

The book then jumps way out past our solar system and to the stars. First up are the constellations. Here, the book readily satisfies the observer’s needs. Ridpath provides the details for a viewer to find each constellation and identify interesting objects in the same field of view. By including all 88 constellations, he covers the whole sky. Further, he uses simple but effective aids, such as apparent width in hand sizes, relative size ranking and position in the celestial vault. A detailed list of features gives observers more of a challenge once they can comfortably identify constellations. Again, eye candy is sprinkled liberally throughout. Most are of views unobtainable for the average amateur but provide colour and interest nonetheless.

Having provided a complete exposition of the sky’s wonders, Ridpath follows up with a monthly sky guide. Here, broad circles extend across two pages. They capture constellations and a few other pronounced objects. These charts are said to be useful for most locations inhabited by people on Earth. Twenty four charts altogether allow for one a month, with separate charts for northern and southern latitudes. Each is associated with a viewing at 10 p.m.. However, they may not be too useful under red light, as stars are in white on a light blue background. Nevertheless, given their emphasis on constellations, this shouldn’t pose a serious issue.

Closing out the book is an almanac extending to the year 2015. Though this idea and its presentation style is great, the actual contents are lacklustre. It only includes events of our solar system, principally lunar phases and transits. Much more happens in the night sky and could have been included.

Yet, with the history section and technological trail, together with the large and small sky charts, this book makes for a wonderful introductory guide for the night time viewer. Its detail and scope is appropriate for the young adult or beginning amateur astronomer. Plenty of eye candy keeps the pages interesting while clear, practical charts ease actual observing. The book’s relatively smaller physical size also makes it easy to carry around. All in all, it’s a great little guide to help those looking for a bit of sense out of all the pin points of the night sky’s lights.

Many places on Earth are shrouded in the veils of night time for more than half of a day. Many people are wide awake, even when the Sun has long since passed the horizon. Ian Ridpath in his book Astronomy provides a practical and pretty guide for just these people who have time on their hands and a sky that draws in their curiosity.

Review by Mark Mortimer