Archive for September 30th, 2010


Stargazer’s bookshelf: Nightwatch

September 30, 2010

NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe
by Terence Dickinson

If ever there was a book to buy before you buy anything else, this is it.

It covers pretty much everything: not just types of telescopes, but what kinds specifically are good for different purposes, and which to consider as good first telescopes. And setting up a telescope, if it’s the day after Christmas and you or a young relative are looking at a new telescope and feeling lost. And not just telescopes, but also binoculars for stargazing, and naked eye observing. And plenty of observing basics, like what makes a good observing site, whether it’s in your driveway or on the other end of an airplane ride, what to take out with you when you observe, and lots of the tips and tricks for seeing more while you’re observing. Also, sections not just on where and how to observe, but also what to observe, from atmospheric phenomena to meteor showers, the sun and moon, planets, comets, and other solar system targets, to deep sky objects like nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies.

This is going to be one of those “and…and…and” reviews because the book does so much. There are seasonal all-sky maps that show the bright stars so you can learn your way around the sky and quickly get your bearings. Better still, there are twenty or so maps of selected regions of the sky showing prominent constellations, bright stars, and the best and brightest deep sky objects. The book was designed to be used in the field–it’s spiral-bound to lay flat in your lap or some other surface, hardbound for durability and to make a smooth and stable platform for the maps, and the maps are clean and uncluttered and easy to read with a red flashlight.

One of my most memorable nights of stargazing was back in the fall of 2007, when I was just getting started. I spent the whole evening in a lawn chair in my back yard, with this book in my lap and my binoculars around my neck, surfing my way through almost the entire sky. If you think “spiral bound” and instantly picture bent wires and torn pages, fear not: the spiral is enclosed in the hard binding and it’s very sturdy, and the paper is thick, glossy, and durable. My copy is still like new despite three years of regular use, both by me and by all the folks to whom I’ve loaned it.

I don’t know when the first edition of Nightwatch came out, but the current edition is the fourth, published in 2006, and it includes tables for planetary positions, meteor showers, and so on through 2018. Even after 2018, I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to this book to look into little nooks and crannies of the hobby that I haven’t explored yet (observing aurorae, perhaps, or building a barn-door tracking mount for astrophotography), and simply for the joy of reading Terence Dickinson’s prose. There are books that are easy to read, and then there are books that are so easy to read that the pages just fly by, and afterward you know a lot more but hardly remember how all the information got into your head. This is one of the latter. It’s also copiously illustrated with full-color photos, so it’s an attractive book to simply flip through.

Nightwatch has a sort of “big brother”, which is The Backyard Astronomers Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. If Nightwatch is a working lunch, The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide is a seven course meal with brandy and cigars afterward. It covers all the same stuff as Nightwatch and then some, and covers everything in a lot more detail, going into things like what specific brands and models of telescopes the authors prefer (and between them, they’ve used about everything). All the extra material comes at a price, literally and figuratively: The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide is about twice as thick as Nightwatch, weighs about twice as much, and costs about twice as much. It’s too thick to be effectively spiral bound–it has a very high quality sewn binding–and too clunky to take in the field, so it includes no observing charts. On the other hand, it has an extremely useful supplementary website with a blog. If you’re already planning to get a separate star atlas or observing guide, and you want encyclopedic coverage, and you don’t mind paying more, get The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. But if you’re just getting into amateur astronomy, or if you just got your first telescope and you’re thinking, “Now what?”, and you’re looking for a good all-around introduction to stargazing, get Nightwatch.


  • very broad introduction to amateur astronomy, covers almost everything you really need
  • includes sections on just about every conceivable type of observing
  • all-sky charts and maps of selected regions are very intuitive
  • spiral bound to lay flat in the field, and tough enough to be used that way
  • high production quality, with nice paper and lots of color photos, but plenty of meat as well
  • updated regularly


  • Covers almost everything adequately enough for beginners, but almost everything is covered in more depth somewhere else. That’s not really a con, more like an inevitable trade-off. No book can be a good introduction AND a exhaustively thorough at the same time, not and remain inexpensive and approachable (although The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide comes close, and fails mainly in being the heaviest and most expensive astronomy book on my shelf).
  • Sky maps don’t show many stars, which can make it tough to get to some of the objects. As a field resource, most people who stay in the hobby will outgrow it fairly quickly. But the maps are only a small portion of the book, and the rest of the material will be interesting and useful indefinitely.

Recommended? Heck yes. Enough to make it my first loaner to people who are thinking about getting into astronomy (unless it’s already loaned out, in which case I fall back on The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide), and enough that if anything ever happens to my copy, I’ll replace it in a heartbeat.

If you’re getting started in astronomy, or thinking about getting started in astronomy, and you only get one book, this is the one. The list price is $35, but you can usually get it for $25 or less at Amazon. Here are the product links again:

NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide