Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Possibly my favorite book: Seeing in the Dark, by Timothy Ferris

February 22, 2012

I have a lot of astronomy books. Some are about astronomical phenomena, celestial objects, and other worlds, some are about telescopes and how to use them, and some of them aren’t really books in the traditional sense but observing tools packaged in book form (the Pocket Sky Atlas, for example).

But out of a couple of bookshelves’ worth of astro books, there are two that stand out in particular: Starlight Nights by Leslie Peltier and Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris. These two are personal favorites of mine. I’ve read them both over and over–in fact, I tend to reread them whenever my interest in astronomy goes through one of its periodic flares. The reason I keep coming back to them is that, alone out of all of the astronomy books I’ve ever come across, only these two capture the enchantment of what stargazing feels like.

Starlight Nights is a wonderful book and deserves a post of its own, which I hope to deliver someday. But tonight I want to write about the other book, Seeing in the Dark.

Ferris is a fantastic writer, capable of taking all kinds of complex ideas and relaying them in everyday terms so straightforward you can’t help but follow along and wonder. Coming of Age in the Milky Way is his Pulitzer-nominated magnum opus, a wide-ranging tour of the growth of astronomical science from prehistory to the end of the 20th century. It is a great book, in just about every sense of the word ‘great’, and one reason is that it never bogs down in dry storytelling. Ferris always has an eye out for the quirks, foibles, imaginative leaps, and lucky breaks that characterize science as a very human enterprise. But he also keeps the other eye fixed firmly on the big picture, our place in it, and how harnessing human passion to the cause of science has allowed us to determine those things. The tone of Ferris’s writing is light, which keeps the pages flowing past like water, and generates a calm into which his occasional profound observations fall like thunderbolts. Reading his books makes you glad to be alive; they are best read on rainy days and cloudy nights, because on sunny days and clear evenings they will make you want go outside and experience the universe firsthand.

Coming of Age is anything but stilted, but it is an ambitious work that only avoids the description of ‘scholarly’ because Ferris’s prose goes down so easily. Seeing in the Dark is a more personal book, an informal ramble through the history and present of amateur astronomy and through the author’s personal history as well. Many of the autobiographical passages make me smile with recognition (from page 22 of the paperback):

If you’re young and don’t know where you’re going, the highway is an excellent place to be. The police officers I met along the way would sometimes ask, “What’s the hurry?” but there was no hurry. A dedicated high-speed driver isn’t anxious to get somewhere; he’s already there, where he wants to be–at speed, with the car seemingly shrunk to the size of a motorcycle, or the motorcycle to something not much larger than his hands and wrists, screaming down a road that also has shrunk, to the thickness of one pounding vein, in which somehow there is always just enough room to get by, with nothing in his ears and mind but the scream of the engine and the sound of good strong music, bounced off the “ozone.” Endlessly flying up the road–and for some reason, late at night, two-lane blacktops always seemed to be leading upward–peering into the headlights’ yellow eclipse, I was as alone as some future astronaut adrift in the hard vacuum past Titan. But I never felt lonely. I was in just the right place.

Photo by Thad VSoke, from TWAN

Oh man does that bring back memories, of driving across Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, often at night, with the vast empty spaces of the American West lit only by the light of the moon and stars and the tiny almost hearth-like warmth of the headlights. I was also never bored and never lonely. Despite my being jacketed in a car, in a strange way those long drives were and are opportunities for me to commune with nature, to revel in the existence of places that are so big and old and profoundly unprofitable that even in the 21st century they are largely unmarked by hand of man–a yearning that extends smoothly and naturally into the night sky.

Seeing in the Dark is divided into three big sections. The chapters under the first heading, The Shore, deal with  astronomy, amateur astronomy, and amateur astronomers as things-in-themselves, and also with Ferris’s boyhood forays into astronomy, setting up spindly telescope on the roof of his parents’ Florida house to plumb the heavens and watch the occasional Space Race rocket launch. In Blue Water Ferris takes us on a tour of the solar system, from the sun to the comet belts, with each chapter focusing on one planet or class of object and the strange and often hilarious histories of their scrutiny by astronomers both amateur and professional. The final section, The Depths, takes us to the stars, the Milky Way, other galaxies, and ultimately to the edge and beginning of the universe. But Ferris isn’t done yet: the final 70 or so pages of the book include appendices to get one started in stargazing, notes, and a glossary. It’s a smart setup, and one I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else: by the time you finish the book, you’ll want to go stargaze, and right there Ferris gives you the tools you need to get started.

And, as I said, Seeing in the Dark captures that magical sensation, easy to recognize but almost impossible to describe, of what it is like to observe the night sky. From page 50:

I pressed a button on the steel control box, and the telescope glided toward the center of the nebula. I gasped  at the sight: Reefs of brick-red and pearl-gray gas clouds were parading by…. Their light had been traveling through intergalactic space for 180,000 thousand years, dissipating all the while as it spread out, but it was still bright enough to make me squint. I recoiled, and found myself gazing at a stream of light that spilled out from the eyepiece like a flashlight beam. Looking up, I saw that it projected a fuzzy, circular image of the nebula on the inside of the dome.

The night assistant’s voice crackled through the intercom. “Tim, you OK down there?” I tried to speak, but could find no words.

I could go on like this for days, quoting favorite passages from the book, and I probably will do just that in other posts. But for now I will just leave you with one more, and call it good (from page 64):

Stately, self-possessed, a murk of mingled stars and gas clouds presenting itself to the eye in hues of silver to charcoal to India ink, a galaxy is so commodious as to contain, I should think, more stories than anyone, anywhere, shall ever come to know. Although there was no sign of a supernova in this particular galaxy on this night, I lingered a moment before moving on, just to look. I felt absurdly happy, like the early French balloonist who, once aloft, refused to come down.


Observing Report: Messier Marathon at Owl Canyon

April 3, 2011

On the evening of Friday, April 1, I attempted my second-ever Messier Marathon. My first was last year, in February of 2010 (observing report here). That one was an out-of-season marathon, and only about 105 objects were visible, of which I observed 98. My goal this year was to break into the triple digits.

Owl Canyon Campground is a BLM public campground about 6 miles north of Barstow. It’s a great place for camping, hiking, and stargazing, but not a site one would usually choose for marathoning. The campground is down in the canyon, and the canyon walls raise both the eastern and western horizons, which cuts down the time available for fishing the early evening and late morning targets out of the twilight. But it’s close by, which was good because I couldn’t leave town earlier than 4:00 on Friday and needed to be to my destination and all set up by nightfall. And the forecast was a bit more favorable there than any of my usual haunts, which had clouds predicted for shortly after midnight.

I was there with my friend Andy, and both of us were using 5-inch reflecting telescopes and 15×70 binoculars. We were each armed with a checklist, a photocopy of the map from the Sky & Telescope Messier Card, and the S&T Pocket Sky Atlas. I also had Harvard Pennington’s Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide along, primarily for the detailed charts of evening and morning objects, although it wound up getting used much more than that. Andy got his first telescope last year (reviewed here) and had seen only some of the Messier objects before our marathon attempt; for him the night was primarily about exploration and working on his object-locating skills. My 6-yr old son, London, was also along on the trip, for the fun of camping and our traditional morning-after hike.

We got to the campground well before sunset, made a fire, and roasted hot dogs for dinner. The sun set a little after 7:00 and by 7:30 we were picking out stars and constellations. Our first Messier object, unsurprisingly, was the Pleiades (M45), which we needed as a signpost to get down to the galaxies of the evening rush. We missed M74 and M77–the high western horizon cut them off before the sky was dark enough to see them. We saw M31 and M32 at 8:22, and M110 at 8:38, just before Andromeda set. M33 was another no-show; both of us suspected a glow at about the right place, but it was right on our local horizon and we couldn’t be certain that what we though we saw was really distinct from the twilight skyglow.

After that, things got easier. We nabbed M76, M34, and M79 before 9:00, and then paused for a few minutes to roast marshmallows. We were back in action by 9:20, roaming through the nebulae and open clusters of Taurus, Orion, Canis Major, Puppis, Gemini, Auriga, and Cancer.

We soon fell into a comfortable rhythm. My goal was to find as many Messiers as possible, and Andy’s goal was to see them, and to get some experience using his scope under dark skies. He found many of the objects himself, with either his scope or the big binos, but for some of the less impressive specimens he cadged views through my scope. I set out a lounge chair and blankets for London so he could stay warm while he looked for shooting stars and satellites, and before long he was fast asleep under the stars.

For last year’s Marathon I had used a 6″ f/8 Dob, which I later sold when I moved up to a 10″ Dob. This year I was using a 5″ f/5 Newt on the Skywatcher AZ4 alt-az mount (also sold by Orion as the VersaGo II), and it was a pleasant combination. With a low-power eyepiece, the field of view was about 2.5 degrees, and 5″ is a lot of aperture under dark desert skies. Both of the trios of galaxies in Leo were easily seen in the same field of view, which allowed us to compare them during our brief study. Further to the east, Saturn heralded the rising of Virgo and the Realm of the Galaxies. The jewel of the solar system was spellbinding, as always, and both of spent some time lingering over her charms.

I had been somewhat dreading the Virgo-Coma “clutter” of galaxies. I found them all last year, but it took me about an hour and a quarter to slog through them. This year went much more smoothly–I started with M60 at 11:08 and finished with M100 at 11:31, and that was allowing time for Andy to look at each one before moving on. Later on in the evening he realized that he had forgotten to look at M100. I had already moved on, but was happy to return to M100 by the simple expedient of panning around western Coma until I spotted the broad dagger of stars next to that big, bright galaxy. That fast and lazy approach was my favorite object find of the night, but not my favorite view.

After finishing the Realm of the Galaxies, we turned north, to Ursa Major and Canes Venatici. My favorite view of the evening was of M97, the Owl Nebula, and M108, a distant galaxy, shining brightly in the same wide field. M51 showed hints of spiral structure and its companion, NGC 5195, was interesting for its bright, almost star-like core.

We ended the first session of the night in the east and northeast, sweeping up globular clusters in Hercules, Serpens, Ophiuchus, and Scorpio, and catching the open clusters of Cygnus as they crawled over the horizon. Our final objects were the globs M9, M62, and M19, about a quarter after 1:00 AM. We covered our scopes and went to bed, with an alarm set for 3:30 to get us up for the morning rush.

We rose on time, but so had the clouds. Starting about 11:00 PM we had seen high, thin clouds in the south, but they had not gotten very far overhead nor threatened to interrupt our marathon. By 3:30 it was a different story–the whole sky was fogged over, with only a handful of the brightest stars piercing through the gloom. We crawled back into our sleeping bags, and that was that.

Our total for the night was 80 objects. If we hadn’t gotten clouded out, I think we could have gotten into triple digits, although the high eastern horizon would probably have kept us from nabbing M30. But it was a fine night out under the stars, we both had fun and saw a lot of beautiful things, and we were well-rested in the morning, which almost never happens after a marathon.

Breakfast was pancakes and bacon cooked over the campfire, with the desert staying pleasantly cool as the sun ducked in and out of the clouds. London and I took our traditional morning hike and found many wildflowers, some beautiful volcanic rocks of almost every color, including green and purple, and a brave little lizard who let us get quite close before he rocketed away over the desert floor.

It was a heck of a lot of fun and a fine, rewarding night of stargazing, regardless of our total object count. I had time along the way to bag a couple of new objects for the Herschel 400. I think for Andy it was a bit of a breakthrough evening. He glommed on to The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide early in the evening and was soon zooming all over the sky, not just finding and viewing the Messiers on his own but also calling out their types and distances–one thing we both appreciate about the book is that along with maps and directions on how to find the Messiers, it has an eyepiece sketch, capsule description, and basic astronomical data on each one. It’s nice to know what you’re looking at.

It’s also nice to be reminded as you observe that the sky is not a dome over our heads but an inconceivably vast space, with objects scattered through it at all distances, “in which we float, like a mote of dust, in the morning sky” (in the words of Carl Sagan). The sun is 8 light minutes away; Saturn is about 1.5 light hours away; Sirius, the brightest nighttime star, is 8.6 light years from us; planetary nebulae (the gaseous shells of dying stars), double and multiple stars, and open star clusters are usually only a few hundred to a few thousand light years away in the neighboring spiral arms of the Milky Way; globular clusters are usually tens to hundreds of thousands of light years away in our galaxy’s halo; and the external galaxies of Messier’s catalog range from a little over 2 million light years away for Andromeda (M31) to a mind-bending 67 million light years for M109. And even this incredible gulf only gets us just barely to the edge of our local supercluster of galaxies, one of countless galactic superclusters strewn across the observable universe like stars across the arms of our own Milky Way.

Such is the span of space and time one can experience in one night during a Messier Marathon. I had a blast getting 98 last year, I had even more fun getting 80 this year, and I’m already looking forward to making a run on all 110 next year. Watch this space. And more importantly, just watch space.


Sauron was framed!

January 8, 2011

I suppose what I should be doing is putting up the by now more than a week late New Year post, in which I take an astronomical look back at 2010 and forward to 2011, and report on how I did with last year’s resolutions and propose some new ones.

But instead, you get more Tolkien. Following Mike’s lead–and at his suggestion–I’m recycling one of our old e-mail discussions for this post. Enjoy!


Mike: Sauron wants to enslave the people of Middle Earth and usher in a new era of darkness … but, but …  Well, had I been a ringwraith, I’d have been  longing to ask, “But why, O dark lord?”

Me: Allow me to float some possible answers for further discussion and/or debate.

1.  Sauron is afraid of getting his butt kicked.  And the only way he can see to avoid that is to enslave or destroy all the enemies that could possibly defeat him.  Sauron had been captured by the Numenoreans way back in the day, although he eventually turned that to their undoing; he had been defeated and cast into outer darkness by Isildur and the Last Alliance; and most recently he had been forced out of Dol Guldur by the White Council.  At this point, making war on men and elves may be a matter of mere survival.

2.  Sauron has a basic biological revulsion to the things that most good beings consider good.  He can no more tolerate elves and trees than elves can tolerate orcs and boils.  Nice things are yucky, and yucky things must be destroyed.  If you find this farfetched, try getting an adult female human to hold a snake or a spider.

3.  Sauron is not actually evil; he is a bit paranoid and has a self-actualization problem, but he is also the victim of repeated acts of aggression by Gandalf, Galadriel, and their toadies.  He should not, therefore, be villianized for his courageous acts of self-defense against Gondorian aggression.  It is very difficult to perceive this because all of the histories of Middle Earth were written by a militant pro-elfer who also happened to be an Ivory Tower old white guy.  (It would have been impossible for me to think that thought before I moved to California.)

4.  Sauron actually is an old white guy.  The Burning Eye is just a special effect to keep the troops in line.  Sauron is actually the Wizard of Oz.  He pulls some ropes and speaks through this megaphone and these other old white guys (who happen to be dead) saddle up and go do bad stuff on his behalf, or a bunch of orcs march from Point A to Point B and disregard campground regulations.  Seriously, does the big S. ever do anything?  Hell no.  He makes his lieutenants do everything for him.  That’s a sign of great leadership–or the sign of a big fat faker.

Next question:  okay, Smarty, then how has Sauron managed to stick around for thousands of years?  Answer the first:  Sauron has always been a big fake perpetrated by the Wizard of Oz, but the Wizard of Oz has been a migratory title, much like the Dread Pirate Roberts. Every time some orc captain starts stringing more than two thoughts together and gets suspicous, the current “Sauron” rattles the Mordorian saber and said orc captain gets to die gloriously on the outskirts of Lorien.

Answer the second:  The real Sauron died at the hands of Isildur, and no one heard a peep for, oh, about three thousand years. Then this “Necromancer” pops up in Mirkwood, gets driven out, and sets up shop in Mordor, claiming to be Sauron returned.  Gandalf and the elves have always been suckers for a nice big enemy they could use as an excuse to increase military spending and whip the populace into a frenzy, so they bought into it hook, line, and sinker. It’s obvious that the “Necromancer” was a small-time hood who saw an opportunity and took it.

Answer the third:  Sauron is Radagast.  Pretty odd how ole Rads was always lurking around when Gandalf needed a chat, but once the war started he was nowhere to be seen.  I mean, if he is really one of the caretakers of Middle Earth you’d think he could at least show up for the last battle.

5.  Sauron wants to bring the benefits of nationalized production to Middle Earth.  The capitalist pigs in Gondor want to stop him. Therefore they must be destroyed.

Here’s my “But why, O Mithrandir?”

Why does everyone go around talking as if the world will immediately and eternally fall into darkness if Sauron recaptures the ring?  He had it before and still managed to catch an a decisive beating.  Sure, maybe there are fewer elves around these days, and maybe the orcs really have been multiplying,  but that seems to me to be more of a tactical problem, so that maybe the question should be, “Do we have enough combatants and materiel to defeat Sauron if he gets the ring back?” and not, “Why don’t we all go die now in a possibly pointless diversion so that we’ll be spared the inconvenience of dying later if he gets the ring back and things immediately and eternally go to pot?”


Discuss! At some point I actually will return for the promised end-of-year astronomy post, but right now I am observing myself with horrified fascination to see how long I might put that off. It’s the Jane Goodall approach to procrastination.


Reading PDFs on the Kindle

November 29, 2010

About three weeks ago Vicki and I traded Kindles, as combination late anniversary/early Christmas presents. She’d gotten hooked on e-books using the free Kindle app on her Droid smartphone, and wanted to get something dedicated.

I’d been skeptical about e-readers for a long time. I’m a book guy; the second-best job I ever had was working in a used book store. I like curling up with books. I doubted that an another Damned Machine (the usual appellation for the electronic devices in my life) could offer the same cuddliness.

Well, I’m a believer now. The Kindle is lighter than hardbacks and even lighter than some paperbacks (I’m lookin’ at you, swollen fantasy epics), and a lot easier to read one-handed than either one. I topped up the charge when I got it, and it’s still at about a quarter of a tank three weeks later, so the promised month of battery life looks legit. I’ve taken it to the park and read in full sunlight, and it looked even better.

It is such a nice piece of kit that I have actually found myself reading more than I did before. At first I wondered if this was just infatuation with the new toy. But it’s been three weeks and I’m not only still reading more, period, but also more kinds of things. Right now on the Kindle I have:

  • about a dozen of my favorite essays, copied from the web into Word docs and sent to my Kindle wirelessly (and freely) using its dedicated e-mail address;
  • about 30 short stories, most of which I haven’t read, courtesy of and Cory Doctorow (also free);
  • a whole shedload of classic literature from the Kindle store, from the Bible to the Origin of Species (yes, I value them both) to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the first five novels in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series (also free);
  • and a handful of paid-for novels that I really desired.

The Kindle is so small that my default now is to just take it wherever I go, and then if the mood strikes, I have a whole range of things on hand to choose from. I don’t have to decide in advance whether to take a book along, or which book to take; to a first approximation, whatever I might want to read, I have with me just about all the time.

One thing I haven’t put much of on the Kindle yet is PDFs. As a scientist I both produce (a little) and consume (a LOT) of scientific literature, and almost all of it these days is in the form of PDFs. Unfortunately the Kindle is not going to replace the PDF vault on my hard drive, or even a good fraction of it. I have something like 20 gigs of paleontology papers in PDF form on my laptop, and the Kindle has about 3 gigs of user-available space, so if I want to take it all with me I’m going to have to wait a couple of hardware generations (at least). Taking it all with me is attractive because I never know when I’m going to be in a museum basement, looking at the vertebrae of some weird dinosaur, and have a sudden and quite desperate need for a paper on Apatosaurus or Dicraeosaurus or whatnot.

For this very reason, my friend, colleague, and frequent commenter Mike Taylor asked me to test-drive a PDF on my Kindle. Thanks to some dumb rules at Amazon, he has a shedload of credit that is useless at, and a Kindle would be a convenient and possibly useful way to dump some of it. So I loaded up the 2007 paper in which he and Darren Naish described the new dinosaur Xenoposeidon, and took it for a spin. The rest of this post is basically copied and pasted from what I reported back to Mike.

It works surprisingly well. Just opening the PDF gives one entire page per screen. At that scale I have no problem making out the text, but it’s too small to be comfortable. The screen is 6″ on the diagonal, so that’s no surprise, and I don’t regard it as being either a pro or a con. The device is what it is.

Adjacent to the space bar is a button with two capital As, one larger than the other, that controls page size, contrast, and screen rotation (for PDFs; with Kindle format docs you can also choose among 3 typesets, 3 line spacings, more or fewer words per line [independent of font size], and text-to-speech [wherein the device will read to you if you have headphones on]). Page size options include fit-to-screen (the default), 150%, 200%, 300%, and actual size. Going to 150% lets me get a bit over half a page on the screen at once, so I can see a whole page with four clicks in portrait view, or just two, I’d reckon, in landscape view.  I set it to ‘actual size’ which turns out not to be far off of 150% and had a good close look at the specimen photos. Resolution was fine. I noticed some pixellation so I opened up the PDF to compare, and the pixellation I noticed on the Kindle is just what’s present in the PDF, and nothing worse. The one downcheck here is that the Kindle screen background is not white but a very subdued gray. I imagine that this is deliberate, to prevent eyestrain during marathon reading sessions, but it does noticeably decrease the contrast range for photographs.

Final analysis: (1) using the clicker button to navigate around on a zoomed in page is slightly less invisible than using a mouse, but only slightly, and I’ve only done the former for about 30 seconds so the device might disappear more from my notice with longer use; and (2) the contrast range is reduced which sucks some of the life (and information) out of illustrations.

Other than that, based on my exhaustive 5-minute trial, the Kindle makes an acceptable PDF reader. You couldn’t tote your entire collection, but you could load it up with a gig or two of stuff you’d most likely need on any given trip.

Getting back to books–and to the stated purpose of this blog–the Kindle is kind of a dead end, astronomically speaking. Few astro books are available, and astronomy is a very visual thing but most Kindle versions (of everything) have the illustrations stripped out. There are a couple of compilations of star maps but these terrible reviews. I did find a handful of older astro books–as in, 19th and early 20th century–but I haven’t had the inclination to check them out yet. If anything good turns up, I’ll let you know.


Feanor & Sons

November 28, 2010

Feanor & Sons Silmaril Retrieval

Our commitment is second to none–we swear by it!

We also offer:

  • Slayings–ask about our family discount!
  • Hidden kingdoms sacked
  • Lands usurped (Beleriand only)
  • Dooms fulfilled

We use the latest Naugrim technology.

Going by sea? We have a fire sale on beautiful boats by Teleri! (sold as-is)

Special problems? Talk to Maglor in Coastal Operations, or Maedhros in Spelunking.

Family owned and operated since the First Age.

Genuine Noldorian service–don’t settle for Edain or Half-Elven, get screwed by those who have seen the light of the trees!

Actual descents into Angband by unpaid third party labor, so we can pass the savings on to you!

Feanor & Sons–get your curse’s worth, or we’ll stab you in the back!

Here’s what people are saying:

“They killed my dad!” –Elwing

“Honestly, Feanor & Sons did a lot of the work for me.” –Morgoth


There and back again

November 27, 2010

(I wrote this last July as the first and ultimately only post of a blog that I quickly abandoned. Now that I’m consolidating my bloggulation, I’m posting it here and killing the other blog. My comment exchange with Mike Taylor is now posted at the end of the original text.)

So I’m reading The Silmarillion again (i.e., for the first time all the way through–long story), and I’m about a third of the way through. Men have just awoken, and the Noldor have arrived back in Middle-Earth.

I was thinking about blogging it as I went, but (a) I don’t have time, and (2) in rereading Mike’s TRP posts, I found that he already said most of what I wanted to say. But I started writing a long message about it to Mike, and decided that it would make a decent blog post instead. So here I am, blogging about it after all. Truly, the mind boggles.

The Silmarillion really is a beautiful book, but the beauty comes at you in quick little flashes, and it always tainted by sorrow. I agree with Mike that Tolkien’s motivation was more than philology; the languages probably gave him a convenient mechanism for starting to build the world (and a metaphor, in the Ainulindale), but they don’t account for his motivation. I may be daring too greatly, but I think his motivation was probably in part to do what Lewis did with Narnia: to try to work out his ideas about God and man, life and death, suffering and redemption. At times during the opening sections I found myself wondering if our Creation was not something like the creation of Ea. It seems to be worthy speculation (Tolkien’s, not mine) into an aspect of existence that we can only read from frustratingly abstract and incomplete narratives–and by that I mean both Genesis and other creation myths, and the records of astronomy, geology, and paleontology. And obviously (to me, at least, although I am always puzzled that more religious folk don’t get this) we are fighting the long defeat in our mortal lives, and indeed the whole history of the world since the Fall is a long defeat, until the eventual remaking of the world. Tolkien wasn’t telling the factual story of our long defeat, but I think he hoped that by telling the fictional history of another long defeat, he might illuminate our condition and give us hope. After all, we have been disclosed more about our ultimate fate than the Eldar or even the Valar.

So my original plan was to:
1. Read The Silmarillion, without referring to LOTR;
2. Read LOTR in light of The Silmarillion, without watching the movies (I hadn’t seen them in years);
3. Watch the movies.

That plan is a bit wrecked now, because on the afternoon of the 4th of July I broke down and watched Fellowship (hey, it has fireworks). But I’m not too sad, because most of the music lodged in my head and now as I am reading The Silmarillion I have Howard Shore’s themes playing along, and I think they’re smashing. Whatever criticisms one might level against Jackson’s movies, I think the music is pretty much beyond reproach.

Also, I am thinking now that my Epic Rediscovery Of Tolkien’s Immense Canon of Art (henceforth EROTICA) should be expanded to include The Children of Hurin, which I read on its first release three years ago and loved, and The Hobbit, which I haven’t read since high school. So the new plan is to:
1. Finish The Silmarillion, still without referring to LOTR or any of the later books;
2. Read The Children of Hurin;
3. Read The Hobbit;
4. Read LOTR;
5. Watch the movies.

Incidentally, last weekend was my first LOTR movie watch in probably 5 years at least. I remembered the broad strokes of Fellowship (I can’t abide the acronym FOTR; it seems very coarse for such a beautiful work [OTOH, you may feel the same about EROTICA]), but I had pretty well forgotten the total effect of watching the movie. And I’m pleased to say that two impressions were extremely powerful, moreso than on any previous viewing.

The first was the depth of history behind the events of LOTR, and I think this is absolutely key to understanding not just LOTR (that’s obvious), but the success of LOTR. I think a lot of fantasy is sort of medieval escapism, and there’s probably nothing wrong with that (although I don’t particularly want to live in a place or time without antibiotics and cheap flouride toothpaste). But when you approach LOTR, you’re not just going back (and sideways) in time, you’re going back in time to somewhen that itself has loads of “back in time” behind it. Middle-Earth feels not just old, but positively ancient. I think now that much of the pleasure of the series derives from that. The heroes are not just legendary in our terms, they’re echoing the legends of their own world, and they’re not just fighting the Bad Guy of the Week (a Noldorian suicide bomber, perhaps), but saving the world from an ancient evil. All of this comes through very clearly in the movies, or at least in the first movie (I haven’t watched TTT or ROTK since the early oughts, so you’ll have to wait for my impressions on rewatching them).

The second impression was the palpable sense of evil and corruption emanating from the One Ring. I hadn’t really gotten that before. I mean, it’s stated plain as day in both the books and the movies, but I hadn’t grokked it. I suppose I had always thought of the Ring as something both beautiful and cool, which unfortunately happened to have this not-quite-dead dark lord’s spirit attached to it. Probably about what Boromir thought of it. But on this rewatch I finally really grokked how vile it is, not incidentally, but down to its core. From its conception it was an instrument of division, corruption, and enslavement, and I finally really got that.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Discussion with Mike, from the original comment thread


“Truly, the mind boggles.”

In this case, it bloggles.


I meant to comment properly on this article, but got seduced by the cheap pun in my previous comment, so now I’m going to follow up my own comment with what I meant to say.

I may be daring too greatly, but I think his motivation was probably in part to do what Lewis did with Narnia: to try to work out his ideas about God and man, life and death, suffering and redemption.

I think that’s close to right; except that Lewis had been a Christian for longer when he started to write the Narnia books that Tolkien was when he started on what eventually became the Silmarillion, and so you might say the Lewis had already worked out his ideas and was merely laying them out in as comprehensible form as possible, whereas Tolkien was in the process of working out his idea, and laid them out in a largely incomprehensible form.

I like this idea because it neatly accounts for the fact that Middle-earth is much better art than Narnia, but Narnia is much better theology. And that in turn accounts for the fact that sophisticated adults almost always like Middle-earth more than Narnia, whereas children and others who have not yet raised barriers get a lot out of Narnia.

And obviously (to me, at least, although I am always puzzled that more religious folk don’t get this) we are fighting the long defeat in our mortal lives.

That’s not obvious to me. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t true, but that it’s not obviously true. I certainly don’t get the impressions from the book of Acts that the early disciples felt themselves to be fighting a long defeat, nor from the letters of Paul. I think that may be something that Tolkien read into his religion from his personality rather than something that was already there — what Rilstone described in his Two Towers movie review as “Tolkien’s pessimistic, Catholic, view of morality”. If it seems obvious to you, too, then … could it be a shared derived character of Catholics?

I’m glad that the Fellowship movie worked so well for you this time around. For my part, I seem to get more out of them pretty much every time I watch. That’s not to say I don’t cringe in a lot of places (“No parent should have to bury their child”, indeed) but the essence of the films, their emotional core, is startlingly true to Tolkien — much more so than we had any right to expect or even to realistically hope.


Lewis had been a Christian for longer when he started to write the Narnia books that Tolkien was when he started on what eventually became the Silmarillion

Is that true? I thought Tolkien was a cradle Catholic, but 30 seconds of web search doesn’t turn up any support. Do you know that Tolkien converted as an adult, or is that an assumption?

That’s not obvious to me. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t true, but that it’s not obviously true. I certainly don’t get the impressions from the book of Acts that the early disciples felt themselves to be fighting a long defeat, nor from the letters of Paul.

According to my understanding, to the Elves “the long defeat” means that they do not possess the power to save the world, that all that is wrought in Middle-Earth is impermanent and at least slightly tainted, but that it is better to struggle to achieve what happiness and beauty they can than to surrender to evil, or even apathy. At least, I meant it in that sense, and not the Nirnaeth Arenoediad/Doom of Mandos sense; the former seems to me to accord pretty well to our lot as mortals on Earth. Our ultimate victory and ultimate reward is elsewhere. That does not mean that there is not great beauty and much worthwhile work to be done in this life, it just means that our temporal efforts are, as the term implies, transient.

I think that may be something that Tolkien read into his religion from his personality rather than something that was already there — what Rilstone described in his Two Towers movie review as “Tolkien’s pessimistic, Catholic, view of morality”. If it seems obvious to you, too, then … could it be a shared derived character of Catholics?

Interesting. That is incorrect in the particulars, but might be true underneath. Any latent existential pessimism I harbor is a holdover from my nearly Puritanical (American) evangelical upbringing. Whatever its global and institutional failings–and those are many and vexing–the RCC has been in practice a font of peace and hope for me. But the broader point–that Tolkien and I are both projecting–is something I’ll have to think about.


Well, Tolkien wrote the very earliest parts of what ended up in the Silmarillion world at a very early age — in his late teens, IIRC. So even if he’d been raised Catholic, he would hardly have been thinking deeply about the implications for many years. By contrast, Lewis had been obsessively thinking through religion in general and Christianity in particular for many years before “gave in, and admitted that God was God” in 1929. And of course he hardly stopped thinking about it thereafter. It was fully 20 years later that he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the Narnia books. So, yes, I do think it’s fair to say he would have written those books from a position of having worked out a much clearer theology than Tolkien had when he started out on his work. Then again, Tolkien was still tweaking that work when he died in his eighties, so I certainly don’t mean to imply that there was anything immature about his thinking. Just that his work probably reveals process much more the Lewis’s.


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


Target of opportunity: Universe from DK Books

August 31, 2009

Universe the definitive visual guide

Hey, I’ve noticed that Borders is kind of a big chain, and that if a book is on the bargain rack at my local store it will probably also be on the bargain rack in Oklahoma City, Poughkeepsie, and Macon. So check this out: Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide, from Dorling Kindersley, is available in hardback on the bargain rack at Borders for $9.99.

The book does a pretty respectable job of fulfilling its titular promise. If you’re only familiar with DK books as skinny offerings aimed at children, prepare to be blown away. This bad boy is 512 pages long and weighs about as much as my favorite telescope (no, really). I’d list all the things it covers but we’d all be old before I was half through. There is a 111-page “Introduction” that covers everything from atoms to the birth and death of the universe, sky motions, ancient astronomy, space exploration–basically all the stuff about how we know what we know. The meat of the book is the 210-page “Guide to the Universe” that runs through the solar system, deep sky objects within the Milky Way, galaxies, and so on out to superclusters of galaxies and the large-scale structure of, what else, the universe (clue’s in the title). The book concludes with a 160-page section on “The Night Sky”, with constellation diagrams and seasonal star charts; this section alone is the equal or superior of many stand alone sky guides that cost two or three times as much as this whole volume.

DK also nailed the “visual” part of their Ultimate Visual Guide. Every single page is covered in so many color pictures that you hardly know what to look at first. Most publishers would have screwed this up, and either used a bunch of stale recycled clip art or so crowded the pages with photos that there was no room left for content. Not so here: Universe is jam-packed with both photos and text and much of it is fresh and all of it is absorbing.

Astronomy books are a lot like dinosaur books: after a while you only pick them up to check out the art and see if there’s even 10% that isn’t already familiar. Yes, Saturn’s rings are surprisingly thin and globular clusters are full of old stars; what else is new? But I have learned a ton just in the two or three days I’ve had Universe, about everything from Renaissance astronomers to sunquakes to lesser-known features of Mars to the orbit of halo stars around the core of the Milky Way.

Really, seriously, if you’ve got ten bucks and you are at all interested in astronomy, even a little bit, go buy this book. I have a two-foot shelf of astronomy books and I’d have a hard time pointing to one that does any of the things that Universe does as beautifully and as well, and I am confident in saying that there is no book that does all of them so well. Get it while it’s cheap!


Extended Mission: Follow the Moon

August 26, 2009
The moon from downtown Claremont this evening, taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera held up to the eyepiece of my 3.5 inch telescope.

The moon from downtown Claremont yesterday evening, taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera held up to the eyepiece of my 3.5 inch telescope.

Mission Objectives: The Moon, Sky Motions

Equipment: Naked eye

Required Time: 1 minute, every few nights, for one month

Instructions: Follow the moon through one complete cycle of phases. Should be easy enough, right–you’ve seen it, what, about a million times in your life? But do you know where it is right this minute?

The moon orbits the Earth in the same direction that the Earth spins, west to east (counterclockwise if you’re looking down on the North Pole). The west-to-east rotation of the Earth means that when you’re on Earth, stuff in the sky appears to move from east to west–most notably the sun, but also the stars and the moon. The stars might as well be bolted to the dome of heaven for all the motion they reveal to the casual stargazer (beyond the basic rising and setting). The apparent motion of the sun is different–as the Earth swings around it in orbit, the sun appears to make one complete circuit of the sky each year, at a rate of a little more than 1 degree per day (360 degrees/365 days). The apparent motion of the moon is also different; the moon is orbiting the Earth every 27.3 days, so it makes one complete circuit of the sky (relative to the background stars) in that time, at about 13 degrees per day.

BUT the Earth is still spinning west to east, and going much faster than the sun or the moon are relative to the background stars; from Earth, the background stars themselves appear to turn 360 degrees in 24 hours, at about 15 degrees per hour. So the predominant motion of the moon in the sky is still the east-to-west progression that we expect from the sun, the stars, and everything else up there. But the moon is moving around us west-to-east, so it appears to go more slowly than the sun. Each day the moon is a bit more than 13 degrees farther from the sun. You may also think of it like this: the moon completes an orbit in 27.3 days, and there are 24 hours in a day, so each day the moon rises and sets about an hour later, until it has come back around to where it started, one month hence.

If all that makes your brain hurt–and it sometimes does mine–let’s try it with pictures. Imagine that you are standing in an open field at sunset, facing south (better yet, arrange to be in an open field at sunset, facing south!). If it  just a couple of days after the new moon, this is what you’ll see:

1 - crescent moon

Of course you know that the moon is tidally locked to the Earth and always shows us the same face; all that changes from our perspective is how much light falls on the near face. There is no “dark side of the moon”, just a near side and a far side, and over the course of a month they receive equal amounts of sunlight and darkness.

In the diagram above, showing a young crescent moon, the moon has not yet moved very far from the sun; in fact, is still very far sun-ward of the Earth. Most of the sunlight is falling on the far side of the moon, but the moon is enough off to one side of the Earth-Sun line that a little light spills over to the near side.

2 - first quarter moon

The next night the moon will rise about an hour later and be about 13 degrees farther from the sun in the sky. From being in between the Earth and Sun, the moon is moving around to be beside the Earth, relative to the sun. When it gets there, then it will be halfway up the sky at sunset, and halfway illuminated on the near side. This is the first quarter moon, and it’s absolutely the best time to haul out binoculars or a telescope and see the play of light and shadow over the craters, mountains, and valleys of la Lune.

3 - waxing gibbous moon

Once past first quarter, the moon continues to rise later and is consequently less far up the sky when the sun sets. But now the near face is turned more squarely to the sun and appears more fully lit. This more-than-half-lit condition is gibbous, and since the moon is getting fuller each night, it is a waxing gibbous moon.

4 - full moon

Eventually, about two weeks after new moon and one week after first quarter moon, the moon rises at the same time that the sun sets. The moon and sun are now precisely opposite each other in the sky, so the near face is entirely lit and the moon is full. Once in a while things line up so that the Earth is exactly between the sun and moon, and the shadow of the Earth on the moon creates a lunar eclipse. It should be obvious that a lunar eclipse can only occur at full moon.

That doesn’t mean that a lunar eclipse can only occur at sunset; the moon may become maximally full when it is halfway across the sky (and the sun is halfway between rising and setting), or during the day, or at any other time. Another way to think of it: whenever a lunar eclipse occurs, it will be at sunset for somebody, somewhere–and sunrise for someone else, and midnight for someone else, and noon for someone else.

Most months there is no eclipse, because the moon’s orbit describes a slightly different path in the sky than the Sun,  and the moon passes over or under the sun from our vantage point. If everything was in perfect alignment, we’d have a lunar eclipse every full moon, and a solar eclipse every new moon.

5 - waning gibbous moon

What happens after full moon? The moon continues to rise an hour later each night, but it has now gone past the point where it was opposite the sun in the sky (full moon), and starts to approach the sun from the other side. From our standpoint, it looks like the sun is catching up to the moon. From full moon to new moon the same phases pass–gibbous (mostly lit), quarter (half lit), crescent (less than half lit)–but in reverse order, and you have to stay up later and later to see them against a dark sky.

Eventually as the moon rises later and later, there comes a day when it rises at the same time as the Sun. In other words, the moon is now squarely between the Earth and Sun, the far side is entirely lit, the near side is entirely dark, and we can’t see the moon in the sky at all. This is the new moon, and in nights to come the moon will rise a bit later, trail the sun across the sky, and first be visible as a thin crescent low in the west at sunset, as in the first diagram up top. It should be obvious that a solar eclipse–when the moon gets squarely between the Earth and  Sun, and the shadow of the moon falls on the Earth–can only happen at new moon.

You don’t always have to stay up late (or get up early) to see the waning phases. In a month, the moon spends just as much time in the daytime sky as it does in the nighttime sky. Think about it–at first quarter, the moon is at it highest point in the sky at sunset. Therefore it must have risen six hours earlier (1/4 of the way around the sky x 24 hours of sky rotation in a day = six hours), and been visible for most of the afternoon and early evening. Similarly, at last quarter, the moon is at the same point at sunrise; it rose in the middle of the night and won’t set until the middle of the day. The gibbous moons on either side of full are easiest to observe during daytime, because they’re bright enough to see easily. The crescent moons must necessarily be very close to the sun in the sky, and so they are up almost all day, having risen either just before the sun (waning crescent) or just after (waxing, as shown in the first diagram up top). But they are almost impossible to spot because they are so poorly lit (from our point of view); their feeble light is lost in the glare of the sun.

Why make a big deal out of that? For roughly three decades I thought it was unusual to see the moon in the daytime. Then I picked up an intro astronomy book and learned that the moon is out in the daytime just as much as it is at night, and then I felt quite foolish. Because when you think about it, it can’t be any other way.

I’m posting this now because we’re almost to first quarter moon (Wednesday night to Thursday morning), and because this is a blog for busy people. At first quarter the moon is as high as it is going to get right at sunset, and it looks great all evening, and it shows a maximum amount of detail in binoculars and telescopes. So if you want to start observing the moon, with the naked eye or anything else, this is the most convenient time and the time when the moon looks her best.

After this you don’t have to observe the moon every night (although it’s not a bad idea if you can swing it), just check in it every two or three nights until it’s rising late enough (past full moon) that you don’t feel like staying up for it anymore. After that you can mostly forget about observing the moon for a couple of weeks, unless you want to get up in the middle of the night, or you’re up early before the sky gets light, or you remember to see the moon high in the sky in the middle of the day near last quarter (about a week after full moon). I’ll give a heads up in a few weeks about the coming new moon, and you can start looking for the new crescent moon in the evenings right after. We’ll be back to first quarter in 29.5 days.

Hold the freakin’ phone! If the moon orbits the Earth in 27.3 days, why does it take 29.5 days to complete one cycle of phases? The answer is that in the not-quite-four-weeks it takes the moon to orbit the Earth, the Earth has moved on in its orbit around the sun. Moved on a lot–1/13 of our way around the sun (4 weeks/52 weeks = 1/13). So the moon has to move past the point where its orbit is complete (and where it was relative to the background stars–its sidereal period) to get to the point where it is lit the same (= same phase–its synodic period). This takes a little over two days, hence the difference. If that doesn’t make any sense, check out the diagram at the bottom of this page (and read the rest while you’re at it). H.A. Rey’s book The Stars is also just outstanding at explaining all of this, and has the best diagrams I have ever seen anywhere, bar none (plus it’s under ten bucks at Amazon).

You can also verify this for yourself once you know some of the background stars, or even just one (it should be a bright one, so you can see it when the moon is out). The harder way is to pick an unmistakable phase, one you’ll be able to tell apart from the nights on either side (first quarter is perfect), note the proximity of the moon to your reference stars, and then do the same thing when that exact phase comes around next month. This is the hard way because you have to get your phases exactly right; one night off is enough to blow the whole deal. The slightly easier way is to pick a time when the moon is moving past a reference star, note the phase (preferably with a drawing or photograph), wait 27.3 days until the moon is moving past the same reference star, and compare the phase to your record from four weeks earlier.

The moon is probably my favorite astronomical object. I like the fact that it’s close enough and detailed enough to look great through binoculars and phenomenal through even the most modest telescope. I like watching the phases change and being able to understand how and why it happens. I like knowing that as long as I can see the night sky, I can figure out what direction I’m facing and roughly what time it is, and what season. I want you to have the same easy familiarity with the moon, but to still let it tickle your sense of wonder. Your relationship with the moon starts whenever you go outside and look up. So why not tonight?


Observing Report: Lehi, Utah; or, When Binoculars Beat a Telescope

August 23, 2009

As you will soon tire of hearing, I have a little telescope that I got to take on trips. It’s a StarMax 90 Maksutov-Cassegrain from Orion, and the tube is just slightly smaller than a 2-liter soda bottle. It comes with a nice padded case with lots of pockets and padded velcro “attic” for eyepieces, a finderscope, and–if one is willing to play a little telescope-packing Tetris–a small alt-az tripod head. I stow a light tripod in a bigger but still carry-on-able bag. The whole kit weighs less than 10 lbs, and it’s already racked up several thousand miles by plane and car. Under the very dark skies of rural Oklahoma, where my parents live, the little Mak has given me better views of some objects than I have ever gotten from light- and air-polluted SoCal, even in much bigger scopes.

But sometimes even so light and compact a travelscope is just too much. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Lehi, Utah, where I am staying for a quick overnight trip. One night is not enough to justify bringing a telescope. For one thing, my luggage for the trip consists of a light backpack and a small duffle, so the scope case would add half again to my kit and push me over the carryon limit. For another, if it’s just one night there is too great a risk of getting clouded out to make hauling a scope worth it. So I brought my binoculars instead, and Gary Seronik’s neat little book, Binocular Highlights.

BH collects 74 of Gary’s columns of the same name from Sky & Telescope, covering a total of 99 celestial objects for binocular observers. Each one-page entry has a detailed star map and a short writeup, and the little star maps can be correlated to four seasonal all-sky maps that fold out from the book’s endpapers. Best of all, the book is spiral bound to lie flat in your lap when you’re out observing. Since small scope users tend to go for the best and brightest that the heavens have to offer, BH is also a  great observing guide for use with a small telescope. I’m on my second copy, having given one away already, and I don’t plan on ever being without one again.

My binoculars, by the way, are a humble pair of Celestron UpClose 10x50s. One of the things I’m going to strive to avoid on this blog is repeating the generic (and generally good) advice that one can find anywhere on the ‘net and in books. One of those pieces of advice is that if you’re new to stargazing, buy some inexpensive but serviceable binoculars and a planisphere and spend a little while learning your way around. By near-universal consensus, 10×50 binoculars are just right for stargazing: enough aperture and magnfiication to pull in rewarding views, but not so heavy or so zoomed in that you can’t hold them steady or can’t hold them, period. The UpClose 10x50s can be had from Amazon for around $30, and you could do a lot worse.

Anyway, when I got into Salt Lake City this afternoon the sky was littered with clouds but not totally socked in. Hope stirred in my chest. But as darkness fell the clouds settled in for what looked like an extended stay, and I holed up in the room to read. I went out for a late dinner at 9:00, and on the walk back to the hotel I noticed that the clouds had cleared out enough to reveal at least half the sky. Would I get to observe? I ran upstairs to grab binos and book, and by the time I was back outdoors the sky was almost completely clear.

The next problem was finding a spot to observe from. Hotels off interstate access roads are not noted dark-sky observing sites. Lights from gas stations, billboards, and housing additions lit the whole area like the Vegas strip. Okay, maybe not quite that bad, but bad enough to keep my eyes from getting dark adapted. Fortunately this development is relatively new and I could see inky blackness about a quarter mile away, so I started walking. Some forward-thinking civic planner had put in a sidewalk beyond the point where one was actually needed, and more to the point, beyond all the annoying lights. After a quick 10 minute hike I found a nice slope falling off to the west, lay down on my back on the cool concrete, and started scanning the skies.

How was it? In a word, phenomenal. The skies here are not as dark as they once were, and not as dark as they ought to be, but they’re a darn sight darker than what I’ve got within easy reach in LA county (yes, I know, Joshua Tree is just an hour and a half to the east, but this blog is written by and for people with kids and jobs; “easy reach” means roughly “within ten minutes”). I started out with the Summer Triangle and its associated constellations: Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila. In Cygnus I stumbled across an open cluster, M29, that I’d never observed before. It was the first of several “firsts” for the evening. Traipsing down the sky to the “teapot” of Sagittarius I found two more: the brilliant globular cluster M22, and the Lagoon Nebula, which was simply stunning even in my 10×50 binoculars.

The longer I observed, the better dark-adapted my eyes became, and the fainter the targets I could pick out. I tried repeatedly through the observing run to bag M51, a spiral galaxy just below the handle of the Big Dipper, but it was too far north, lost in the light dome over Salt Lake City. The big score was picking out the Ring Nebula, M57, in Lyra. It wasn’t the brilliant lake of green that it was in the Mt. Wilson telescope, or even the crisp gray smoke ring I see in my backyard scopes, just a fuzzy dot that I could barely pick up even with averted vision. But it was thrilling nonetheless–the difficulty of the chase added spice to the eventual capture.

I feasted on easier targets as well–Mizar and Alcor; M13, the great globular cluster in Hercules; Albireo, a pretty double star in Cygnus; and of course the Galilean moons of Jupiter, standing out in a proud little string like the Von Trapp family singers.

When my arms got tired I would set the binoculars on my chest, stretch my arms out to either side, and just look up. It’s great when you have a safe, dark spot where you can lay down and look straight up and get every terrestrial object out of even your peripheral vision. When the sky is all you can see, it seems more vast and deep and at the same time more intimate. If the clouds hadn’t eventually rolled back in, I’d probably be out there still, which would certainly put a crimp in my workday tomorrow.

Walking back to the hotel was a bit of a downer. As soon as I was back over the hill my eyes were assaulted by all the lights of civilization, which are slowly but surely pushing back the night sky and its treasures. I felt sorry for the Utahans who are busy destroying their fabulous dark skies with strip malls and burger joints. I thought of Esau, who traded his inheritance for a bowl of soup.

But enough of that. The world is a big place and there will always be parts of it beyond the din and glare of civilization. Grab a pair of binoculars and get out there–even walking over a hill from your next hotel may be enough to put you alone with the cosmos.

Oh, one more thing: when I set the binoculars down and just looked up, I could see the Milky Way.

A good night for me, and good night to you.