Star Ware

by Philip Harrington
Third Edition, 2002
paperback - 424 pages
from John Wiley

"I'd like to buy a telescope for myself (or my husband/wife/child/grandkids/stock broker/etc.). What should I buy?" It's one of the most common questions planetarium lecturers get during the holiday shopping season.

But what is the answer? There isn't an easy one, because there is no "one size fits all," "Swiss Army knife" telescope. What telescope is best for you depends on many things: your level of astronomical experience, eyesight, body strength (you have to carry and set it up), the size of your budget, the size of your car (you have to transport it if you want to get away from city lights), and how you plan to use it. Do you want to please your kids and neighbors? Then you'll want sharp views of "the crowd-pleasers," the moon and planets, but don't necessarily need a BIG telescope. Do you want to see star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies? Then you'll want a telescope big enough to gather the faint light from these distant objects yet capable of being transported away from light-polluted skies.

We are living in the greatest time in history to be an amateur astronomer. Telescope prices now are the lowest in history, when adjusted for inflation, and the options available today would have seemed science fiction to amateurs thirty years ago. But there comes a problem with all these options. The beginner can easily be overwhelmed. Reflector or refractor? Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain? "Star-hopping" or computer-guided GoTo? And would you like that "supersized" with a Kellner or Orthoscopic or Erfle or Plossl or Nagler eyepiece? What's best? The age of technology is not for the timid.

Last month we highlighted a great book for the new telescope owner: Turn Left at Orion. This month we highlight a great book for the person who wants to become a new telescope owner or to learn how to better use a newly purchased telescope: Star Ware by Philip Harrington. The author is a sort of one-man astronomy publishing firm with half a dozen well respected and reviewed books for the amateur observer as well as a website -- http://www.philharrington.net -- with (not surprisingly) lots of information about his books and (very helpfully) lots of up-to-date telescope and observing information for amateurs.

Starting with a brief historical chapter to introduce important concepts, Star Ware moves on to the basic terminology necessary to understand how and why binoculars, telescopes and their accessories work. As the Music Man put it, "You gotta know the territory." Harrington dares to ask the important question that all too few eager buyers are ready to face, "Are you really ready to get a telescope now?" Many buy telescopes in an impulsive burst of enthusiasm before they are really "ready" for them and wind up disappointed, losing interest in what might have been a fascinating hobby. For those who can answer "yes," Harrington covers the basics of how to find the best telescope for your budget and interests and how to use it in the most satisfying manner. He covers both general concepts and types of equipment (not just telescopes, but mounts, finders, eyepieces, filters, etc.) and gets specific, "naming names" as he reviews the strengths and weaknesses of different instruments and brands.

After covering commercial telescopes, Harrington has a chapter for the "do-it-yourselfer" on the too often overlooked option of building your own instrument. It doesn't take a rocket scientist, just an investment of time, effort, and persistence to produce a telescope or helpful accessory at a fraction of the cost (and often of higher quality) than anything available in the marketplace. There follow very important chapters on maintaining your telescope in good condition for years of service and simple "tricks of the trade" that every amateur should know, but few books cover so comprehensively. All in all, Star Ware is one of the most valuable gifts for that lucky person (perhaps yourself) who has a new telescope or is about to get one.