Galactic gasp inspires starry night reading

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, August 20, 2003

When the lights went out in Toronto and New York last week, some people had a reaction that could have come straight out of Isaac Asimov's science fiction classic, Nightfall. Here's how one enthusiastic Internet chat line contributor summed it up:

"No light + sky = Stars. Gasp!"

Well, people around Cochrane know what galactic gasp is all about most of the time.

During the past month, in particular, as we've been watching Mars making its closest approach to Earth in recorded history – remember, the orange-reddish planet will be at its brilliant closest in the wee hours of August 27 – many here in the (usually) clear-skied West have fallen in love with the whole night sky all over again.

So, to keep this starry-eyed love affair from cooling down, I asked some of my coffee companions with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), Edmonton Centre, for their reading recommendations. Most of the following require nothing more than the naked eye or a pair of binoculars to be useful.

For all stargazers, beginners to advanced, the beautifully illustrated NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, by Terence Dickinson, tops pretty much everyone's list, including my own.

Harris Christian, RASC librarian and astronomy presenter, wrote that NightWatch was his first "real" astronomy book.

"It's one of my 'if you were being shipwrecked on a desert island and could only take 10 books with you' books," Harris says. "I classify it as one of my essential astronomy books. It contains all-around information that is timeless."

Another well-illustrated book both Harris and I highly recommend is The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. This is a "useful book," Harris says, "even for someone with years of stargazing experience."

Both of the above books provide important information on choosing a telescope or pair of binoculars for hobby astronomy. I cannot stress strongly enough that you not even think about investing in a telescope till you've consulted one of these books.

For younger readers, Harris recommends The Stars, by H.A. Rey. This is a book for parents and kids to enjoy together, Harris says. It illustrates the 88 constellations with simple stick figures that are "fun to compare with the night sky."

Harris also recommends two publications by the RASC: The Beginner's Observing Guide, by Leo Enright, and for the more advanced hobbyist, Observer's Handbook, edited by Raj Gupta. For these and other valuable RASC astronomy references and resources, go to

For more serious stargazers, an atlas is essential. For intermediate beginners, Harris recommends The Cambridge Star Atlas, by Wil Tirion. This is a map to all the stars most people can see with the naked eye under skies free of urban light pollution (stars about the brightness of the faintest star in the bowl of the Little Dipper or brighter).

For those who are really serious about the night sky, RASC member Warren Finlay has just published a Concise Catalog of Deep-Sky Objects: Astrophysical Information for 500 Galaxies, Clusters and Nebulae. Warren says his book is "for those who are curious about what they are looking at when they view the most commonly looked-at deep sky objects; e.g., how many suns are there in that Messier galaxy they have in the telescope, or how old is that open cluster they are looking at."

For the computer generation, Edmonton RASC Webmaster Lance Taylor recommends Starry Night Backyard planetarium software, to "get better acquainted with the sky and constellations," and Stellarium software, "extraordinary in that it's free" (

One inexpensive item that every backyard astronomer always keeps handy is a planisphere. This wonderful dinner-plate-sized star finder consists of a rotating plastic time wheel overlying a sky map. It allows you to locate and identify the brightest stars in the sky throughout the year, on any date or at any hour.

So, here's wishing you some really great stargazing in the months ahead.

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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