book reviews

Amateur Astronomy Books

Scientific Astrophotography:
How Amateurs Can Generate and Use Professional Imaging Data
by Gerald R. Hubbell
Springer, 2012, 333 pages


This book promises to help intermediate-level amateur astrophotographers make observations that actually provide useful scientific information, while at the same time delaying as long as possible the twin perils of amateur astronomers: bankruptcy and death by sleep deprivation.

We aren't talking wobbly department store refractors and point-and-shoot cameras here. If you want to collect reliable data, Hubbell recommends as a minimum an astrograph and a professional 16-bit CCD camera. Hubbell (no relation to 'Ed') advises readers to obtain new equipment only when the experiment demands it. Selecting the right equipment depends on your scientific goals, and this book helps the reader to decide rationally what equipment you need. There's lots of accurate technical information that every amateur needs to know about imaging and equipment for astrophotography, presented in an well written format, and nicely published by Springer.

Later chapters include brief discussions of photometry and spectroscopy, and sections on image calibration and data analysis. For readers coming from engineering, where nothing is done without a written documented procedure, a bunch of SOPs are included.

The focus is entirely on equipment, image analysis, and data analysis. Hubbell doesn't provide any suggestions about what kinds of experiments might be appropriate for an enthusiastic amateur with a brand new eight-incher. An introductory book like this won't turn anyone into an astrophysicist. (See here for some books that will.) But you still need equipment to get good data, and for that this book is a good step in the right direction.

dec 15, 2012

Astrophotography for the Amateur, 2nd ed.
by Michael A. Covington
Cambridge, 1999


T his book has been around for years. It's finally been updated to include information on digital cameras, but still contains a lot of stuff about film. But let's face it: film is obsolete. CCDs (and even some high-end CMOS chips) have higher dynamic range, greater light sensitivity, and much better efficiency in the red than film. Almost no professional astronomer uses film anymore.

The other unique feature of this book is the dreadful quality of the photographs, which are all grayscale and mostly blurry. The exception is a few color plates in the middle of the book, which are of good quality. Aspiring astrophotographers will find the poor quality of Covington's images discouraging: if this is the best they can expect, even with an expensive 16-inch SCT, they might reason, better forget astrophotography altogether. However, it's possible that Covington may just be using a bad camera, or maybe he has vision problems--even the photographs of earthly objects, such as his darkroom and his lenses, are blurry. Covington undoubtedly has considerable knowledge of photography, but the bad photos like his blurry grayscale photograph of a sunset at the beach on page 165 undermine the reader's confidence in what he writes. One good feature of this book is that unlike The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, Covington documents the telescope and exposure conditions for some of the photos. He also provides lots of sage advice. But unless you want to risk losing interest in astrophotography, I recommend reading his more recent book titled Digital SLR Astrophotography.

Digital Astrophotography
by Stefan Seip
Rockynook, 2009


T his short book has lots of pretty pictures and step-by-step advice for beginners who want to take “amazing pictures” of the stars using a dSLR, webcam, or dedicated CCD camera. Even the most basic steps are not overlooked: Step #1 for webcams is “aim at the planet.” (Smack! No wonder!) The author's advice about cameras and images is mostly accurate and helpful for beginners, but telescope-related details like how to precisely align your mount (the most critical step in astrophotography) are omitted. Contrary to what you might have heard, just pointing it at Polaris is not always good enough.

Some of the advice is questionable, like using PhotoShop to adulterate your images, and making a cross of “sticky tape”, as it's called in England, and placing it in front of the telescope to create a fake diffraction pattern. The writing may not have much technical detail, but it's highly readable and covers most of the important details beginners need to know.

Astronomical Spectroscopy for Amateurs
Ken M. Harrison
Springer, 2011


moved to here

Astronomy Hacks
Tips & Tools for Observing the Night Sky by Thompson & Thompson
O'Reilly, 2005, 388 pages


I ntroduction to elementary optical astronomy for amateurs. The word “hacks” is misused in this book--these are not hacks, just general advice for beginners. Observing skills and planning are important, say the authors. Planning for a Messier Marathon, the Eiger of amateur astronomers, takes extreme planning skill. There are numerous tips, some useful, some stupid, but all educational, on tuning your telescope and adding techno-bling to make finding things easier. As for the perennial question of beginners--which telescope to buy--the authors are emphatic: get a Dob, along with an extremely tall chair. And lots of towels, blankets, mittens, and other rugged outdoor adventure gear. Has grayscale photos and better quality printing than usual for an O'Reilly book.

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, 3rd ed.
by Terrence Dickinson and Alan Dyer
Firefly, 2008, 368 pages, 9x11


O utstanding introduction to amateur astronomy. Numerous color photographs and up-to-date telescope reviews and recommendations for amateur astronomers. For beginners, the authors recommend starting with image-stabilizing binoculars and a star chart in order to become familiar with the sky before buying a telescope. For telescopes, they recommend a refractor for astrophotography and a Dobsonian instead of the ubiquitous 8-inch SCT for viewing. Although it's relatively light on technical information (almost no equations, for example), it has good advice on accessories and guidelines and procedures for collimating and aligning telescopes and performing astrophotography. The last twenty pages are a mini-atlas of the Milky Way, with beautiful photographs of the stars. If you're just starting out, get this book!

Amateur Astronomer's Handbook
by J. B. Sidgwick
Dover, reprint of 1971 ed.


T his book is aimed at advanced amateur astronomers who need more technical details about telescope optics, photometry, and visual astronomy. It contains many graphs, diagrams, and basic optics equations. It's a fun read, not least because of its old-fashioned, pre-computer-era approach. This is how the great optical astronomers used to do things back in the 1930s. However, readers seeking an understanding of optics would be better off reading a more modern rigorous text on astronomical optics. Many of the formulas used here are not really meaningful in any technical sense. For example, on page 54 Sidgwick says M' = D/0.3, where M' is magnification and D is in inches. Of course, we know he doesn't really mean that magnification is measured in inches, but it's bad math style. This is followed by a number of other equations giving different relationships for M, some of which make mathematical sense, some of which don't, and some of which are only empirical approximations not meant to be used seriously.

The book is also marred by a convoluted writing style that can easily lead the reader to wrong conclusions, and which makes the simple topics discussed in this book seem more difficult than they really are. For example, Sidgwick says in several places that the eye is most sensitive to light at 5600 Angstroms. In fact, while this is true for color vision, most visual observing exclusively uses rods, which are most sensitive to light at 4980Å. And some sentences, like the one on the top of page 67, are practically un-parseable. But this book is great for reading while you're lying under the stars next to your telescope, and it contains a wealth of information for amateur astronomers.

Choosing and Using a New CAT
Getting the Most from Your Schmidt Cassegrain or Any Catadioptric Telescope
Rod Mollise
Springer, 2009


I t may be heresy, but in my opinion the most important consideration in buying a scope is not aperture, but comfort in using it. If you have to stand on tiptoe in the freezing cold and pouring rain for hours at a time, as is typical with a Dob, you will eventually start finding excuses not to use your scope. Rod Mollise, a contributor to Sky and Telescope, gives the most useful and accurate advice I've seen so far on selecting and using a telescope, focusing exclusively on CATs: mainly SCTs and Maks. There's also excellent advice on using a CAT for astrophotography. The book is well written, using normal English, unlike his cornball website.

Star Ware
The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories
Philip S. Harrington
Wiley, 4th ed, 2007


I would be remiss in not mentioning Star Ware, which concentrates exclusively on the hardware--telescopes and accessories--used by amateurs. This information is desperately needed by beginners. Although this book is well written, there are few illustrations, and in the two years since it was published many of the items that Harrington reviews have disappeared from the market. Some of the information, particularly about cameras, is not quite stated correctly. Wait for the fifth edition.

The Sky is Your Laboratory
Advanced Astronomy Projects for Amateurs
Robert K Buchheim
Springer, 2007


A dvice on how to take notes while observing the stars. Although it contains some good advice on ensuring that your observations and images are reliable, and even has a few equations, much of it is high-school-level stuff like how to make a table cataloging the number of meteors per hour. Its purpose is to encourage amateurs to collect data that might be useful to a professional astronomer.

See also Telescope Optics
See also Optics books
See also Star Charts and Astronomical Observing Handbooks
See also Astronomy and Astrophysics Books