Learning the night sky is pretty intimidating. With enough desire and perseverance it’s achievable, even though thousands of individual stars glitter away. Trying to install that desire and knowledge into the younger crowd is even tougher. Anton Vamplew with his book Simple Stargazing provides a significant aid for just this. With a knack for detail and minimal complications, he cuts the intimidation and adds lots of fun to boot.
Using eighty eight constellations, people have arbitrarily made divisions of all that we see at night. These divisions act as boundaries within which a whole pile of special objects reside; nebulae, stars and galaxies. Constellations themselves are distinguished by the most noticeable light sources. Because of this, they’ve served as beacons for generations of night time viewers. Hence, though constellation boundaries may have changed, their role as signposts and guides remains. Therefore, using these as a basis, astronomers and knowledge seekers alike can navigate through all that fills night’s black skies.
Vamplew has written a book to help learn the stars and constellations, if not with pleasure, at least with lots of fun. His target audience is the non-specialist who ‘stand[s] in the backyard / field / outback / savanna / rocky landscape / swamp’. That is, he wants to fairly include everyone no matter where they live on Earth. He also wants to give the opportunity to everyone no matter what their background. Hence, after a one page four step guide on how to look up, he propels the reader into the essentials of star viewing. The beginning portion of the book introduces pertinent phrases and meanings; a light year, the pole star and arc minutes. Following pages describe and provide pictures of the distinguished objects. Usually Hubble shots provide eye candy to emphasize their beauty. After this necessary preamble, he hops into the sky charts which constitute most of the book. These are grouped into four seasons and are further subdivided into constellations seen from the northern hemisphere and others from the southern hemisphere. The charts are clearly oriented and have the constellation figures (not borders) drawn upon them. Following each sky chart is a full or half page description of each of the individual constellations. Vamplew concludes the book with a quick itemized journey through the solar system. With all this, he successfully includes all the basics for learning the way of the stars.
Though the content is fairly standard, Vamplew’s delivery is not. In particular, he’s geared the book to the energy levels and concentration spans of youth. Facts fly fast and furious. Humour abounds as with dictates such as ‘Northerly humans start here’. Further, he pokes fun at the standard history of the constellations, such as with his perception of Bootes which is supposed to look like a herdsman but where ‘his shape eludes me totally even in my most creative moments’. True as this may be, the light delivery of this and other historical nuances easily makes the shape memorable. And, of course, keeping the shape in memory is crucial once eyes are adjusted to the dark and books can no longer be clearly read. In addition, the bits of history increase the bounty of knowledge that can be gained simply by learning some more about the skies and people’s interpretation.
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Another unique element in Vamplew’s book is the twinning of the star charts. That is, one page is the star field without any lines or notations. Adjacent is the identical star page with constellations outlined, as well as some deep sky objects. This provides a great median step in progressing from a fully annotated book. Further, with the charts having a dark blue background, white dots for stars and black for names, they are conducive for viewing with redlights. This just serves to highlight Vamplew’s desire to empower readers to take action and head outdoors.
With this light-hearted approach and rapid delivery, Vamplew’s written a great book for self learners and teachers. Particularly enjoyable is the lack of bias between viewing from northern and southern hemispheres. Further, with sufficient explanations in the early going, the book is quite sufficient to enable parents to teach their children, even when neither has any background in astronomy. Vamplew has ably removed any chance for either to be intimidated. Rather their confidence and enjoyment should increase with every opportunity to put the book into action.
Star gazing is simple, just look up at night. But stare long enough and the stars will draw you up and away from Earth. Anton Vamplew in his book Simple Stargazing provides a fun and informative little reference that will set you on a journey that you can easily share with other night time viewers. So, avoid the confusion on the ground and use this book to soar through the simplicity of the night.
Review by Mark Mortimer