Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book review: The 50 Best Sights in Astronomy and How to See Them

I'd been thinking that I don't really know much about the night sky. I can pick out the Big Dipper, and Venus when it's the Evening Star, but (besides the Sun and the Moon, of course) that's all I know: one constellation and one star. So I decided I'd pick up some kind of astronomy book and try to make myself more sky-literate. One of the first books I ran across at the library was The 50 Best Sights in Astronomy and How to See Them: Observing Eclipses, Bright Comets, Meteor Showers, and Other Celestial Wonders, by Fred Schaaf.

What sets this book apart from others of its kind is the final word in the title: "Wonders." To Schaaf, the things he can see in the sky aren't just interesting, they're "spectacular," "amazing," "wonderful," "beautiful and admirable." Those aren't just words he chooses to make his writing more lively; he really means it.

Here's a small part of Schaaf's description of a total eclipse of the Sun:
A tape recorder running during a total eclipse of the Sun picks up even the most meticulously prepared and normally impassive people shouting, crying, and babbling expressions such as "Oh my God!" and "Wow" over and over again. But that is not surprising. For totality is a time, and a state of heaven and Earth, like no other. In fact, it feels like a time beyond time, as if the reality we learned to construct as small children had been ripped open to let burst through a gleam of what is eternal, beyond words or even thoughts, a blast of raw and pure wonder.

Schaaf's fervor is genuine, and it's contagious. He's one of those rare and marvelous creatures that I call an "articulate fanatic," someone who is not only fanatically enthusiastic about a subject -- astronomy, in this case -- but able to convey to the casual reader why he's so enthusiastic. Schaaf is not only able to receive those blasts of "raw and pure wonder," he's able to reflect them in our direction.

The result is a book that's not only very practical and useful -- along with the descriptions it gives simple directions on what to see and how to see it, mostly without requiring a telescope -- but inspiring in the true sense. It makes me want to go outside and look at the sky and see what's there.

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