Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders
Author: Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
Publisher: O'Reilly, Make:Books
Summary: An excellent reference guide for the amateur astronomer
Review Date: 7 January, 2010
While I disagree with some of Robert Bruce Thompson's opinions and practices in certain areas, in the astronomical realm, he and his wife Barbara have written a wonderful reference guide to the nighttime sky for amateur astronomers, the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Corny title aside, this volume will keep me busy in my limited time under starry skies for years to come.
The Illustrated Guide is a contellation-by-constellation guide to observing double-stars, galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. The Illustrated Guide also provides introductory material on how to best to observe these night sky objects with amateur equipment and a guide to some of the gear that will make your life as a backyard astronomer more pleasant. Much of this introductory material is a repeat of what's in the authors earlier book, Astronomy Hacks.
The bulk of the book is a deep-sky object reference guide. For each of 50 of the northern hemisphere constellations, the authors provide several pages of information about that part of the sky, including a brief history of the name and story behind the constellation, a table of the prominent deep-sky objects that live there, and charts and helpful tips for finding each of these often elusive targets.
For each constellation covered, there is a chart of the constellation as a whole, and then for most of the prominent objects found therein there are charts covering smaller portions of the sky to help you star-hop your way to find the object. Each chart indicates the field width displayed and many of the charts of smaller field widths contain 5-degree finder circles, and 1-degree eyepiece circles, which are useful, but it would have been nice for the circles to match the 4, 2 and 1/2-degree circles of my Telrad.
Though the charts are nice, I find them a little harder to use than those I print out of the astronomy software on my computer. I think I tend to print out my own charts with a higher limiting magnitude, so I get more stars to use for reference.
The tables of deep-sky objects provided for each constellation indicate the type of object, how easy it is to find it, a visual rating (is it worth looking at after spending 20 minutes trying to find it?), its visual magnitude, its size, its right ascension and declination, its common catalog number, and other pieces of useful information. It does take some time to get acquainted with the abbreviations and symbols the authors use to indicate all these facts.
If you acquire a copy you may want to take it to a local print shop to get the book spiral bound. Keeping the book open when turned to Andromeda or to Taurus can be a challenge when you're trying to use your hands for other things. Holding the (somewhat heavy) book up to your eyepiece while trying to compare the charts to what's in your eyepiece is a pain (maybe that's another reason why I like my printouts better). Perhaps cutting off the spine and drilling holes for a 3-ring binder might be the best option so you can consult one page at a time next to the eyepiece (the book is just big enough to do so).
The book is fun to browse, and is helpful when planning your observation sessions, but the true test for such a work is to put it to use under a clear sky at night. So it has accompanied me on a few increasingly-difficult-to-find-time-for forays into the backyard. At the recommendation of the authors in Astronomy Hacks, a year ago I purchased an 8 inch dobsonian telescope (Zhumell brand). This new scope has given me a good opportunity to field-test the material in the Illustrated Guide—although my 'field' to-date has mainly been the light-polluted backyard of my home in Orem. The book has helped me find a number of interesting things in the sky, though some have eluded me. For many of the objects in the book, you'll need good (dark) skies and plenty of aperture. I found that adding a Telrad finder to my scope made finding these objects much easier—I now spend more time looking at these objects then for them. A good-quality, easy-to-use scope will make all the difference in whether your observation session is successful, enjoyable, and therapeutic, or a source of frustration and disappointment. A good scope will make using a book like this much more pleasant.
The Illustrated Guide is useful for beginners and experienced astronomers alike. For beginners, the book will be challenging to use, but will provide years of deep-sky targets to chase down. For those with more experience the book will be a great reference.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Disclaimer: This book was provided as a free review copy by O'Reilly.