NightWatch

by Terence Dickinson
3rd edition, 2003
spiralbound - 176 pages
from Firefly Books


The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer
2002 - 2nd revised edition
hardcover - 336 pages
from Firefly Books

Getting started in amateur astronomy can be a bit confusing at first. There are so many new terms ("right ascension," "declination," "aperture," etc.) and odd concepts (e.g. the higher a star's magnitude, the fainter, not brighter, it will be).to learn. There are old misconceptions to unlearn (e.g. "The best time to observe the moon is when it's full." and "The best time to observe is when it's clear, windy, and the stars are bright and twinkling.") And there's inscrutable equipment to learn to use (e.g. GEMs - German Equatorial Mounts, Barlow lenses, and far more).

Fortunately there are some wonderful guide books for the beginning amateur astronomer. Two of the very best are by well-known Canadian amateur and astrophotographer, Terrence Dickinson. Together they will give the beginner not only a solid grounding in what to look for and how to see (and photograph!) it, but also how to have a lot of fun observing and avoid common mistakes. They should be taken in the proper order, however.

First comes Dickinson's NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. It is designed to allow easy use at the scope or with binoculars and so is spiral bound (to open out flat), has stiffer than usual paper and easy-to-read type. It covers everything the raw beginner needs to know, with helpful, experienced advice delivered in a friendly, encouraging tone. You'll find out about the basic scale of the universe, where we fit within it, and how this governs what we can see at night. Basic binocular and telescope types are covered along with advice on how to choose and use a beginner's telescope to best advantage. There is a simple beginner's sky atlas in the form of 20 sky chart's with easy to follow directions to the brightest and easiest to view star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. There's an extensive section on viewing the Sun, Moon, and planets with tips on low to train your eye to see the most since experience (or an experienced guide) counts for much. Lastly come chapters on special events and phenomena (eclipses, comets & meteor showers) and a brief introduction to photographing the sky. Nightwatch is for the "raw beginner," and, in that niche, is probably The Best Introductory Book. I wish I had written it myself.

Think of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, by Dickinson and fellow Canadian astrophotographer Alan Dyer, as the sequel to Nightwatch, designed to help the amateur who has seen the Moon and planets a few times, shown off the "easy stuff" to the family and neighbors, and is now wondering what to do next. It covers some of the basic information introduced in Nightwatch, but in greater depth, and includes many of the subjects that the "developing" (as opposed to the "beginning") amateur will want to know about. Eyepieces, filters, telescope mounts and polar alignment, and computer guiding, are all covered in the same simple language of Nightwatch, but more comprehensively. There is a section devoted to astrophotography, taking pictures with or through the telescope, using both film and digital (CCD) cameras. Astrophotography used to be an esoteric field for the "extreme" amateur, but has become far easier with low-cost, digital cameras. Amateurs today are producing beautiful images with backyard telescopes that would have been beyond the capability of the professional astronomers at Palomar twenty years ago. The Backyard Astronomer's Guide isn't for everyone who enjoyed and benefitted from Nightwatch, but for those who want to go on, it's a marvelous way to "take the next step." Both books are copiously and beautifully illustrated with pictures taken by amateurs and filled with those "tricks of the trade" that it would take a lifetime to learn on your own.