Book Review: Deep Sky Objects

Seekers need to know everything about their quarries. Their appearance, lifestyle and mannerisms all provide clues as to their whereabouts. Fishermen know the haunts, the lures and the time of day that give the best chance of success. Comet hunters are an equally avid group of seekers and some would say that their quarry is much more elusive. In both situations, seekers eagerly seek out the experienced master to learn their tricks. David Levy, a master at comet finding, simplifies the seeker’s search by presenting his tricks in his book Deep Sky Objects. Many secrets to finding the elusive comet await within.

Given the myriad of aids to sport fishermen, it’s sometimes a miracle that any fish remain in the waters. Comets, however, live their lives far apart from the influence of humans. Comets can appear anywhere in the night sky. Even the day sky can exhibit a particularly vibrant space voyager. And they are deceptively tricky, as they can blend in with the stationary stars and galaxies that populate the universe. They don’t jump at lures, nor do they seek bait. Weather has an influence as, unlike fishermen, the comet seeker has pure disdain for rain. And like the fisherman that captures a mighty specimen, the comet seeker can be blessed with exceptional notoriety. This is especially true if their discovery happens to plough into a planet within our solar system whereby those aided and unaided can witness a true spectacle.

David Levy’s book fills the needs for many who already enjoy gazing into the night sky and are looking for a challenge. An itemized list of choice deep sky objects tantalize the seeker. Many photographs bring to easy view the particular quarry for those less inclined or unable to spend hours searching. Simple yet effective lectures on astrophysics bring sense into the images. And, as the book’s subtitle proclaims, the results of 40 years of hunting the elusive comet give deep context. All these are skilfully woven into a simple, flowing text that is enjoyable to read and use as a reference.

One thing that is quickly apparent from reading the book is that, for Levy, comet finding is a passion rather than a hobby. Given the thousands of hours he’s peered into the deep sky, I wonder when he had the time to sleep. Amazing also is his perseverance. He established his comet finding strategy while a teenager then he remained true to his course. However, this book is not of comets due to their transitory nature. Rather it’s of what Levy considers the most noteworthy objects of the deep sky. His selection criteria is based upon two strongly personal parameters. One parameter is his consideration of beauty. Asterisms in the shape of a river or galaxies that ripple can make his cut-off. The second parameter is the association of an object with an event in Levy’s life. This could be as simple as having to accommodate physical discomfort or loosing a wedding band. In this manner, Levy provides insight into events of his life as well as the results of his viewing passion.

Also hidden within the book are short snippets that would appeal to other sky watching practitioners. Levy gives his thoughts on go-to telescopes, where to look for comets and the utility of making strategic plans. Surprises arise, such as a synopsis of the Shapely-Curtis debate or the effect of a barograph on a career. Also bouncing about are quotes from many poets and story tellers. These skilfully add mood to some dryer description of night sky landmarks. At the book’s end, Levy’s included pages dedicated to a deep sky object atlas and pages for lists of masquerading comets. These make for a useful reference.

Given the book’s poetic nature, the combination of subjects is enjoyable. However, be forewarned that the contents and lists are personal. That is, this book is not the telling of a method for finding comets or the understanding of astrophysics but, rather, a showcasing of many parts of Levy’s life. Some may see the book as meandering and undirected. Others may see it as trying to include too many things. But, Levy’s book does present both a manner of viewing the night skies and, perhaps more telling, a little bit of why we spend hours doing so. As such, readers who are looking to expand on their hobby, add a bit of order to haphazard viewing, or get help in answering ‘why?’ would enjoy this book.

Excluding a few of the more showy types, comets are elusive. Messier prepared a table of non-comets to avoid wasting time during his comet searches. David Levy’s book Deep Sky Objects has its own list as well as many tips and tricks on searching for comets. Reading it just may give you the edge in finding your own comet and thus give you the chance to attach your name to a stellar traveller.

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Review by Mark Mortimer