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A Review of: Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe
by Brian Charles Clark

In today's climate of Big Science, where scientists with one or more PhDs ruthlessly compete for limited grant money and limited viewing time on big telescopes, it would be easy to assume that amateur astronomers simply have no place in astronomy. In fact, this is far from the case. Because access to big scopes is so competitive, professional astronomers tend to turn their gazes toward "big topic" targets: distant quasars, galaxies, black holes, and other objects that are simply beyond the reach of small telescopes. The Hubble Space Telescope, for instance, is not allowed to be pointed within about 25 degrees of the sun for fear of damaging the $1.5 billion instrument with solar radiation-meaning that it can never image the planet Mercury, and only rarely Venus. Indeed, the Solar System is one of the prime domains of amateur astronomers.
Just as the desktop computer brought the tools of publishing within the grasp of so many otherwise voiceless people, and likewise the ability to record, mix and produce music to so many (5 record companies control 85% of all music released in North America, but that other 15% is shared by an amazing 10,000 labels; similar percentages apply to independent publishing), so too has the computing revolution made backyard astronomy an important part of the overall science. Computer-aided manufacturing techniques have largely leveled the playing field when it comes to the optics (mirrors and lenses) that go into today's telescopes. Even more significant, CCD cameras ("charged couple device"-an image collector like the one in your desktop scanner or fax machine) have enabled amateur astronomers to make images that rival the best of the pros' work. "Galileo, Herschel, and Hubble," Ferris reminds us, "were no smarter," despite all the revolutions they started (the discoveries of the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, of Uranus, and the red shift, respectively), "than the great scientific thinkers of ancient times; they just had better equipment."
There is, of course, still a major difference between the amateur and professional astronomer-it's no longer one of technology. The difference is that most amateurs simply don't have the education in mathematics and physics to be able to work at the same big-picture level of theory as the pros. But as data generators-and those big theoretical pictures need lots of data, the more the more merry-the amateurs are the darlings of contemporary astronomy. As Alice Newton, one half of an amateur team who also run a bed and breakfast in Chiefland, Florida, a dark-skies community dedicated to the needs of amateur astronomers, asks, "In how many areas of science can you still make an important discovery without a ton of funding?"
If, for the better part of the 20th century, amateurs were looked down upon by the pros as having nothing to contribute, and "lived in the valley of the shadow of the mountains tops" occupied by big telescopes and PhDs, all that has changed. As Timothy Ferris-professional scientist and poet among science writers-points out in his wonderful new book on amateur astronomy, Seeing in the Dark, backyard astronomers generate tons of data, and frequently end up collaborating with professionals. Our knowledge of double stars, for instance, is owed in large part to amateurs. Few professionals could justify the hundreds of thousands of observations required over many years to collect the data provided by amateurs. Double (and multiple) star systems might not seem particularly glamorous, but such studies teach astronomers a lot about how stars age, interact, and about that most mysterious of subjects, gravity, about which, still, almost nothing is known. Amateurs, in other words, through their patient and dedicated observations of double stars, are contributing, a byte at a time, to the holy grail of contemporary science: a theory of everything. As Ferris says, in inverting the old saying about the British Empire, "the Sun never rises on a global observing team" composed, in large part, of amateurs.
Seeing in the Dark takes the reader on a series of tours: of the Solar System, the Milky Way, and beyond into deep space, all the while with pit stops to talk and observe with prominent amateurs. Ferris's book is also rich in historical anecdotes. There was a time when every astronomer was an amateur-either that or patronized by rich royalty. "The foundations of modern astronomy," he writes, "were laid largely by amateurs." Copernicus, Kepler, Halley (who took the grand new theory espoused by Newton and turned it to practical use by determining the orbit of the comet named after him), William Herschel, "who made his own telescopes and wielded them with sufficient skill to become one of the most acute observers of all time-but who didn't get paid for his research until he discovered the planet Uranus, in 1781," and dozens of other pioneers all contributed to the modern science. The Martian landing spot of the Viking I is named after an amateur, Thomas Mutch. People you'd never suspect were astronomers "come out" in Ferris's book, such as Brian May, one of the founders of the rock group Queen (there's a song about time dilation and special relativity on the band's A Night at the Opera).
In other words, if you ever had a hankering to do a little science, to get your feet muddy in the puddle of observation and data collection, to contribute in some way to the big picture, astronomy is just the ticket. I had a 3" reflector when I was a kid, and for years have hankered to get another telescope. Since reading Ferris's book, I've done a little research: for well under $2,000 Canadian you can outfit yourself with a fine 8" reflector (a very useful size for the amateur, having both good resolution and great portability) and a CCD camera. Hook that up to the computer you've probably all ready got, and, presto, you're doing science. The Internet is crowded with Web sites maintained by amateurs, full of useful information, and professionals regularly reach out to amateurs, eager for the data the backyard scientists are able to collect for next to nothing. Now that's cool!
Ferris's science is never dry, not in any of his books, but in Seeing in the Dark, science is only half his raison d'tre for writing. Indeed, there seems to be a covert thesis running through the book: that seeing in the dark, that being a watcher of the sky at night, is good food for the soul. The planets, the clouds of gas where stars are born (nebulae), the challenge of looking for objects billions and billions of light years distant-all this is fun to look at for the sights out there are just plain gorgeous. The secret thesis might be stated as, Truth is poetry, or, more platonically, Beauty is truth. Now, with Mars closer than its been in tens of thousands of years, this is as fine a time as any to mount a pair of binoculars on a tripod and start feasting your eyes.
Yes, binoculars: much useful work has been done with a good pair of binocs. Comets are discovered in the wide-angle view of binoculars, and they're perfect for viewing the big nebulae and closer planets (Saturn is a perennial favorite). The bliss of gazing has been deconstructed and reconstructed by aesthetic theorists of all stripes, but rarely has anyone so evocatively made a case for the wonder invoked by gazing at the skies: "Like giant squid or loaves of French bread-and unlike, say, postmodernism or public opinion polls-[the stars and planets] confront us with the regality of the materially real."
Full of stories, about Ferris's own boyhood observations in Florida, about the people who have put amateur astronomy on the map of Big Science, Seeing in the Dark is a fun read. It's also full of rock-solid information, both scientific and historical. It concludes with a healthy 60 pages of addenda, lists of the bright stars, the planets and their moons, the Messier objects by season (Messier was a French astronomer who put together a list of cool things to look at, mostly galaxies and nebulae), a brief primer on how to get started observing (binoculars are good; looking directly at the Sun is bad, very, very bad), as well as notes (which, along with the citational apparatus, contain some good anecdotes that didn't quite fit into the main text), and an index.

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