Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe, by Timothy Ferris, c2002
Entrancing and beautifully written, this latest work by Ferris, the writer laureate of astronomy, will be treasured by generations of stargazers to come
Amateur astronomers are the heroes of this latest opus from one of the country's best-known and most prolific science writers. Ferris has a special place in his heart for these nonprofessionals who gaze into space out of wonderment and end up making discoveries about comets, the moon and the planets that change our understanding of the galaxy. Ferris recounts how he, as a boy growing up in working-class Florida, was first captivated by the spectacle of the night sky. He then looks at the growing field of amateur astronomy, where new technologies have allowed neophytes to see as much of the cosmos as professionals. The book introduces readers to memorable characters like Barbara Wilson, a one-time Texas housewife who turned to astronomy after her children were grown and has since helped found the George Observatory in Houston (where a number of new asteroids have been discovered) and developed a reputation as one of the most skilled amateur observers. Ferris also takes stock of what we know today about the cosmos and writes excitedly about the discoveries yet to come. With a glossary of terms and a guide for examining the sky, this book should turn many novices on to astronomy and captivate those already fascinated by the heavens.
Science writer and stargazer Ferris elaborates on his 1998 New Yorker essay about the renaissance of amateur astronomy, describing how advances in telescope design, electronics, and telecommunications have made it possible for amateur observers to discover new celestial objects. Improved technology and the sheer numbers of participants have also empowered amateurs to conduct round-the-clock or long-term research projects that complement the work of professional astronomers. Yet these same advances also render human eyes, hands, and sometimes even minds increasingly irrelevant to the practice of both amateur and professional astronomy. Perhaps as a counterpoint to this dismaying trend, Ferris frequently interrupts his narrative to introduce readers to individual amateur astronomers, from the well known…to the more obscure or even surprising…Appendixes provide useful tips and seasonal star maps (Northern Hemisphere only) for the beginning observer, facts and figures about various celestial bodies, and recommendations for further reading. Lyrical and engrossing, this book is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
If you've never heard of Stephen James O'Meara or Don Parker, then you've missed some of the most fascinating adventures in 20th-century astronomy. O'Meara was the first person to measure the length of a day on Uranus and to see radial "spokes" in Saturn's rings. (Most astronomers dismissed that discovery as illusionary, until Voyager got close enough to photograph them.) What's more remarkable, in an age of computer-enhanced CCD [Change-Coupled Device] images, O'Meara made these observations visually, using only a small telescope and his own eyes. Parker went in a different direction. After improving the technique of CCD-based astrophotography, he amassed what might be the world's most extensive and scientifically valuable digital archive of planetary portraits. Despite their passion for astronomy, both hold more down-to-earth day jobs. They are not alone. Today, equipped with low-cost telescopes and high-tech imaging systems, a small army of dedicated amateur sky watchers struggles every night to advance our understanding of the cosmos. While that's no secret, tales from the trenches are seldom told, so these passionate citizen scientists and their extraordinary achievements have remained undeservedly obscure. Happily, amateur astronomy is about to receive a whole new type of exposure.
Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris's latest sojourn into matters astronomical, presents a delightful look back down the telescopes of some of the world's most accomplished citizen astronomers. Ferris knows this community well. A lifelong amateur astronomer, he has an intimate connection to his subject. He isn't bashful about sharing his own experiences. In one passage, Ferris regresses to 1959, when he was a young man, strapped inside the cockpit of a "raw, street-legal racer" while it screeched headlong down the Florida interstate. A self-described "white boy" in the segregated South, Ferris was haunted by his forbidden love of authentic African-American blues. But the radio stations that played it were hundreds of miles away. So he took to the road near midnight, when the ionosphere firmed up and reflected those prized AM waves from their faraway source to his car radio. As he describes how he mentally connected the stars with those distant radio signals, he makes it clear why some people wonder incessantly about life on other planets. It's a refreshing perspective because it presents the situation as astronomers often see it: one cosmos in which the great questions of existence are inextricably intertwined with the mundane. It's what turns thousands of otherwise ordinary folks into night owls who tirelessly prowl the skies for new insights into ancient mysteries. Ferris profiles some of the stars of amateur astronomy, such as comet hunter extraordinaire David Levy... But he also meanders about the community's charming backroads, where you never know whom you are going to meet. The introductions include a roly-poly Houston housewife and master observer who casually chases alligators away from her observatory with a rake, and a sculptor who converted the caldera of an extinct volcano into an enduring work of modern astronomical art. We even get to meet Brian May of the rock group Queen. It turns out that the fellow who wrote "We Will Rock You" also did postgraduate work in infrared astronomy and still observes as an amateur.
To provide context for the profiles, Ferris has also written an excellent introduction to basic astronomy. Actually, it may be a bit too good. Anyone who wishes to plumb the depths of planetary astronomy, or to contemplate catastrophic cosmic collisions, can buy bushels of best-selling books on those subjects. But here, where the main course is the community itself, astronomy should be treated like a rich dessert. The chef needs to present enough to complement the meal, but too much richness can detract from the experience. In an era when publishers impose strict page limits on their authors, more science means less of the stuff that makes Seeing in the Dark such a joy to read. Also, the book eats up 30 pages with astronomical tables and viewing tips, apparently so the publisher can position it as an observer's guide. This must be the work of an overzealous marketing department. Ferris surely knows this small space can't present enough information to be of much use and that many excellent observing guides can already be found in bookstores and on the Internet. My advice to Simon & Schuster would have been to keep the "Further Reading" section and let Ferris substitute the rest with another profile or two. Then this great book would be near perfect. In the end, Seeing in the Dark teaches an important lesson for any nonprofessional interested in science. Amateurs may not have access to all the toys the professionals do. But they always seem to enjoy their research tremendously--and many make discoveries, some of them of immense value to our understanding of the universe.
A veteran author of general-interest works on astronomy, Ferris here spotlights the renaissance in amateurs' contributions to the science. The big-telescope era of Mounts Wilson and Palomar demoted most amateurs to hobbyist status, but the proliferation of charge-coupled devices has vastly increased the power of build-your-own and off-the-shelf telescopes. Combined with "bench strength" and native fascination with the sights of the night, the amateurs are again discovering objects the professionals miss; unpaid insomniacs detect most novae and comets. Surveying these enthusiasts, among whom he counts himself, Ferris relays his "transforming experience" of observing Mars as a Florida teenager in the 1950s. He also interviews 15 other amateurs about their fascination with celestial objects. The most popular planets with amateurs are Saturn or Jupiter; Britain's prolific astronomy popularizer Patrick Moore was held in thrall by the moon. A word tour of planets and constellations closes out Ferris' companionable testimonial cum guide, which has the power to convert a casual browser into an active observer.
NY Times Sunday Book Review
This is a beautiful book....Seeing in the Dark is even more delightful and successful because Ferris has so artfully pinned its organization to the human experiences of observers past and present..
The New York Times
Editor's Choice: One of the year's best books
Unquestionably sublime, the universe is also beautiful, from ruddy Mars and jade Uranus to majestic blue-white Rigel (named in Arabic, like most of the Milky Way's high-magnitude stars, by Muslim astronomers) to the colossal Sombrero, Whirlpool, colliding Seashell and exploding M87 galaxies. Every month the Hubble Space Telescope releases breathtaking new pictures; but all over Earth, Timothy Ferris writes in Seeing in the Dark, there are thousands of less expensive telescopes trained on sights just as lovely. Amateurs, too, can make long colorful exposures with charge-coupled devices (CCD's, the astronomical equivalent of the omnicompetent microchip). Comets can be spotted with binoculars. The Perseid meteor showers this month could be enjoyed with the naked eye…we stare at the universe often, with or without precision optics, in our endless search for meaning. If Ferris is right, more of us are doing that now than ever before. His book is not just a handbook of the universe but a record of people of all sorts who have looked long and hard at it, and of what the experience has been like for them. To be impressed with the universe and curious about it may be, according to some scientists, our species' only purpose in being here, especially if we are indeed alone in it. Others disagree…For Ferris, the more characters there are in the universe, human or not, who can be impressed with it, the better it is for us, and maybe for the universe as well. He provides many means to that end, including a guide to the night sky, tips for the novice stargazer and a brief history of the popularization of science, from Pierre Bayle to James Jeans and Steven Weinberg. But his two big themes are the structure of the observable universe and profiles of the observers.
Ferris has a chapter for each kind of object, from the Sun to quasars, with what you never find in an astronomy book -- the story of human perceptions of these objects, the resulting conceptions of them and, in some cases, encounters with them. He devotes two chapters to the planetesimals, the second one for those with high ''Torino numbers,'' the ones that might crash into Earth, a category that should interest everybody.
As the book moves out into space from planet to star to galaxy, it stops for fascinating chats with the stargazers who specialize in seeing them. You meet all kinds of people here who are regrettably never profiled in People magazine… Ferris's own biography is slipped in, a sentence here, a paragraph there, as an interviewer's reflections. It is a charming memoir about growing up in Key Biscayne, Fla., in the 50's, by an indifferent student who caught the science bug that was so contagious in those years of sputnik and satellites, and became a professional journalist and a lifetime amateur of blues music and astronomy. In backyard observatories and at ''star parties,'' where you bring your own, often home-built, telescope, Ferris has seen eclipses, colliding galaxies, double-star systems and a storm on the surface of the Sun big enough to slap an orbiting satellite into the Indian Ocean and black out Montreal. For him a highlight of the 60's was being able to report the exact times of a transit of Mercury across the disk of the sun. In a stray sentence on Page 196 he measures out his life in something grander than coffee spoons -- four successive observations of the rare Jupiter-Saturn conjunction.
Universe-watching, like golf and aging, promotes humility. Ferris is a retired professor, but of journalism, not astronomy, and his tone is that of the amateurs he celebrates and interviews. That adolescent enthusiasm, well tended since sputnik, reinforces his formidable literary gifts -- for metaphor, for narrative and everything between. This is a beautiful book.
In a generation of writing scientists like Steven Pinker and Stephen Jay Gould, and superb science journalists like James Gleick, David Quammen, George Johnson and Laurie Garrett, Ferris is among the very best. Specializing in astronomy and astrophysics, he has written eight previous books, collaborated on another and edited two. His 1997 book, The Whole Shebang, was an attempt to take it all in; but Seeing in the Dark, on the same subject, is even more delightful and successful because Ferris has so artfully pinned its organization to the human experiences of observers, past and present, instead of to the problems and subdivisions of the astronomical discipline. You learn just as much reliable information about the heavenly bodies and their stunning peculiarities, but you also learn who saw which of them and when. Having brought so many memorably passionate seekers into the book, Ferris can use his other principle of organization to highlight how dwarfed they are -- and how dwarfed they know they are -- by what they are seeking.
New York Times Review of PBS Film
Timothy Ferris, the author, academic and filmmaker, has been called the greatest science writer of his generation, praise he has won for explaining the phenomena of the cosmos with unusual clarity and style. Some commentators have described his prose as poetic, and his latest documentary, “Seeing in the Dark,” tonight on PBS, shows us why.
Here is Mr. Ferris, who serves as writer, producer and narrator, describing the possible contents of Saturn’s spokes: dust particles “that pick up an electrostatic charge from lightning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere, leaping up off the icy rings, like scraps of tissue paper levitating toward a comb.”
Mr. Ferris brings to his similes a Dickinsonian ambition that offers no aural reward, but his paean to amateur astronomy is no less compelling for all of his linguistic intrusion.
“Seeing in the Dark,” based on his book of the same title, is part memoir and part reportage. The documentary pays homage not only to a fascination with stargazing that began in Mr. Ferris’s boyhood, but also to a group of nonprofessional observers, who, because of advances in digital imaging and the development of remotely operated telescopes, have turned into invaluable freelancers for astrophysicists like Debra Fischer of California.
Exactly what our civilization will need trained specialists to do in the future appears to be an issue that gets murkier and murkier. As Dr. Fischer explains here, there are too few astronomers in the world to meet the demands of research, and impassioned amateurs who can now track the movements of exo-planets around stars with the aid of computerized photography are beginning to make significant contributions to our understanding of the solar system.
Mr. Ferris regards these developments with unmitigated awe. He positions himself as a kind of Charles Osgood, walking us through a subculture for which he has tremendous affection. In the process, what he captures most evocatively is the basic human urge to carve for oneself a greater piece of the world than mundane circumstance typically provides.
Visiting a group of makers of hobby telescopes, he finds a man who has made an imposing, exquisite-looking device, using cedar chips left over from a canoe project. What moves Mr. Ferris in “Seeing in the Dark” — what moves us — isn’t the cold, clammy intellectualism of scientific inquiry, but the aesthetics, the beauty and glory of it all.