Turn Left at Orion

by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis
Third Edition, 2000
hardcover - 224 pages
from Cambridge University Press

Telescopes can be deceptive instruments. We are all familiar with the spectacular wonders revealed by Palomar and the Keck on Mauna Kea, the Hubble Space Telescope and our robot spacecraft. So it seems intuitively obvious to the beginning amateur astronomer with a brand new, expensive telescope (that he's been told will magnify hundreds of times) that galaxies shimmering with billions of stars and swirling nebulae glowing with the unearthly scarlet hues of starbirth will appear as soon as he points that tube to the sky.

Alas, it's not that easy. Most of the deep sky wonders are difficult to even locate and when you finally do so (after an embarrassingly long time if you've got guests waiting to look) what you'll see through the eyepiece looks nothing like what you'll see on TV or in the pages of Astronomy or Sky and Telescope. Perhaps the most commonly heard question at the telescope is, "Is that faint fuzzy thing what I'm supposed to look for?" It's hard not to feel deceived or, at least, disappointed.

That's when an experienced amateur astronomer ought to come to the rescue and explain that those beautiful published images which awed you were taken with huge telescopes that focused light for hours on CCDs (charge-coupled devices) many times more sensitive than the human eye. Computers then processed those data to bring out subtle colors and contrast differences you would never be able to see with your own eyes even if you were out there within those clusters or nebulae or galaxies. The true wonder should lie in knowing that that fuzzy spot is actually a cluster of a million stars twice as old as our Sun and that you are capturing on your eye's retina photons (light) that journeyed 25,000 years through space to your telescope. Real amateur astronomy is a one on one meeting between you and the universe.

Now, if you don't happen to have an experienced amateur astronomer living next door, Turn Left at Orion is the next best thing.

Since it first appeared in 1989, Turn Left at Orion has been rightly recognized as a classic, possibly the best single guide for a new telescope owner. It is not a spectacular or beautiful book, but a practical one. There are no Hubble deep field images or colorful David Mallon photospreads from the ultradark Andean skies, just black and white pencil and line drawings. What makes Turn Left so good is that it explains to the beginner in simple language exactly how to easily locate the 100 night sky objects profiled, what they will realistically look like in your eyepiece, and why you might be interested in them.

Authors Guy Consolmagno (former Peace Corps volunteer, now Jesuit meteorite expert with the Vatican Observatory) and Dan Davis (geophysicist with SUNY at Stony Brook) have honed their simple guide to near perfection in the 14 years since it was first published. Anyone with a small telescope, or even a good pair of binoculars, will be able to see most or all of the objects described: the Moon, planets, binary stars, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies (many from the classic Messier Catalog). The objects are organized by the season of the year in which they will be most readily observed in the early evening and a few famous objects for southern hemisphere viewers are included.

Beginners should not skip the introductory and closing chapters which cover important concepts and definitions and explain how to properly set up, use, and care for a telescope. The finding directions are simple and concise, drawings of objects duplicate what you will actually see in a small telescope, and the descriptions of objects emphasize what's most interesting about each object. My only quibble would be with the font styles chosen for labeling stars, etc. in the drawings of telescope views. The outline font style is difficult to read and several fonts seems to have been mixed without a feeling for consistency. And just a few "pretty pictures" in color (with a suitable warning that they won't look like that through the telescope) might not be inappropriate at the end of the book to stir the reader's imagination.

If you buy a new telescope, either for yourself or as a gift, Turn Left at Orion ought to go with it as a needed accessory.