Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The VL Amateur Astronomy Extravaganza, Part I

Today, in Part I of our two-part amateur astronomy feature, we have two special guests here on Vulpes Libris: Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, of the Vatican Observatory and Dr. Colin Snodgrass of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Katlenburg-Lindau.

Many thanks to Brother Guy for providing the images for this interview. Here he is at the EPSC-DPS in Nantes, posing in front of the Ferret data retrieval sytem. Note the name of the asteroid...

Guy Consolmagno is a planetary scientist, Jesuit brother and science fiction enthusiast who first appeared on VL almost one year ago, when he spoke to us about (among other topics) the Jesuit ethos, Catholic culture and the supposed science-religion divide.  You can read his earlier interview (also in two parts) here and here.  

Welcome back to Vulpes Libris, Brother Guy. First of all, do you have any book recommendations for the budding amateur astronomers out there?

The book I recommend to everyone interested in getting into astronomy is H. A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way To See Them. He’s the guy who wrote Curious George, and was a fascinating character in his own right (the escape of Hans and Margaret Rey from Paris in 1940 is its own wonderful book). It is a superb introduction to the constellations and to the ways the stars move in the sky. I got it when I was in the fifth grade, took it to Africa with me, used it when I was teaching university astronomy. In fact, when I was beginning grad school, I was up at the University of Arizona’s observatory on Catalina Mountain with another grad student and we were outdoors, checking the skies, when he turned to me, pointed at the appropriate star, and said, “Look! There’s Arcturus!” That got us both laughing; it’s a direct quote from one of Rey’s wonderful cartoons.

The fourth edition of your own book for amateur astronomers, Turn Left at Orion (co-written with Dan Davis), was recently released by Cambridge University Press. Could you tell us something about the writing process?

In many ways, writing Turn Left at Orion represented all the best and worst parts of writing a first book. I described the genesis of the book in its introduction; while I was in Africa with the Peace Corps, I realized I needed a book like this, one that was as practical as H. A. Rey’s book, only for using a telescope. My friend Dan Davis had the expertise I wished I had. So I proposed to him that we put together such a book; he’d be the expert, I would do the writing. And that’s pretty much the way it worked out. It has been a great partnership because each of us recognizes what the other can do best.

What we did right: first, we chose to write the book we wanted to have ourselves. We were its audience; we knew exactly what we wanted and what we needed to see in the book. And it was a labor of love; certainly in terms of money earned it was a crazy way to spend our time.

Second, when it came to selling the book, we followed the advice we’d heard — we walked into a bookstore to see what sort of books were already on the shelf in the place where we expected our book to be, and we looked to see who published those books. It was immediately clear that the kind of book we were thinking of, was being published by Sky and Telescope, so we sent them a book proposal. They replied that their line (at that time at least) mainly consisted of republishing books published in the UK by Cambridge University Press. So we resubmitted to CUP, and they bought the book.

Finally, the second edition came out just as came online. Turn Left is a classic example of a book that probably would have died in a bricks and mortar store, since the number of people buying it would be too small to get it a wide circulation. But once word of mouth started about the book, everyone knew they could get it at amazon.

What we did “wrong” — but it turned out right anyway: We were both untenured professors back then, a crazy time to write a time-consuming book that wouldn’t count towards tenure. In addition Dan had two small children at home, and a number of young grad students who were as time-demanding as the infants. Fortunately his wife was understanding; and the Macintosh had just been invented. We did all the layout of the first edition on the tiny Mac SE screen. Most of the illustrations were drawn by hand, but MacDraw and the Apple Laserprinter saved our bacon many times over. (Fortunately we both worked in departments that invested in those very expensive printers.) At the end of the day, Dan got tenure anyway — and his department is very proud of the book. I quit my position to become a Jesuit, so tenure didn’t matter for me.

Coauthors Dan Davis (left) and Guy Consolmagno (right) at the Vatican Observatory historic 40 cm Zeiss refractor.

And a second beginner’s mistake: we signed the contract they offered, with no negotiation or other fiddling. I have since learned that there are lots of details that an author should clarify right up front; you don’t need an agent, but you do need to know what special things are likely to come up for your particular book. (For example, for Turn Left at Orion we didn’t have to worry about movie rights. Or an audio version of the book… how to use a telescope — for the blind?)

I have since had better contracts for other books with better royalties and bigger advances from other publishers. But, on the other hand, CUP as an academic press has treated us far better than my other publishers. The fact is, if a publisher wants to do you dirt (as did happen to me with one I won’t mention), they have the experience and the lawyers, and regardless of what you put in the contract they will find a way to run you over. A publisher you can trust is far better than one who promises stuff in a contract that they have no intention of delivering.

An example of the personal touch… it turns out that our first editor at Cambridge University Press was a devout Roman Catholic with friends who were Jesuits. When I entered the Jesuit order (after we started writing the book, but soon before it actually came out) he took special care of it, for example quickly arranging a second edition to clean up a lot of the problems we discovered in the first edition. Between his help (and the support from his successors after he retired) and the sales, we have been selling about 5000 copies a year, regularly, for the past twenty years. That’s over 100,000 copies in print.

The new edition is designed to be used with either small catadioptric (left) or a Dobsonian (right) telescopes.

You mention your experience with the Peace Corps above: I remember you telling a great story about your astronomy outreach activities…

I always drew a crowd when I set up my little telescope in Africa — and why not? A telescope draws a good crowd anywhere in the world. It’s only human to be thrilled at seeing the rings of Saturn.

My funniest moment was probably in one village where everyone turned out, including one frail old man who spoke no English or Swahili, only his tribal language; so I had one of the students translate for me. My telescope was a little C90 cassegrain — it uses a main mirror to gather the light, and a second smaller mirror in front of the main mirror to reflect the light back through a hole in the main mirror into the eyepiece. I was pointed at Jupiter, big and bright… so I showed the old man how to look through the eyepiece, and he bent down to see the planet. His eyes widened up, and he looked up at me with a huge grin.

“Ask him, what did he see?” I told the student.

It was translated, and the reply came back: “He says, he saw a big bright spot of light, with a big black hole in the middle of it!”

Which meant, of course, that the telescope was completely out of focus for his eyes, and all he was seeing was the shadow of the secondary mirror. But I didn’t have the heart to explain it to him, he was so happy with what he had seen…

Dan Davis observing from the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, Italy.

A very big question here, but: why do you think people look at the sky?

I am reminded of a famous quote from the Autobiography of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order: “The greatest consolation that he received at this time was from gazing at the sky and stars, and this he often did and for quite a long time.” Anyone who doesn’t understand this, has never seen the nighttime sky.

Unfortunately, thanks to light pollution, most people have never really seen the sky. A classic story about this recently appeared in an article in the Los Angeles Times, from January 4, 2011:

So foreign are the real night skies to Los Angeles that in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake jostled Angelenos awake at 4:31 a.m., the [Griffith] observatory received many calls asking about “the strange sky they had seen after the earthquake.”

“We finally realized what we were dealing with,” [E. C.] Krupp [director of the Griffith Observatory] said. “The quake had knocked out most of the power, and people ran outside and they saw the stars. The stars were in fact so unfamiliar; they called us wondering what happened.”

Many thanks, Brother Guy, for speaking with us today.  Turn Left at Orion is published by Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 978-0521781909.


Dr. Colin Snodgrass is a Marie Curie fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research at Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany.  Today, he has kindly agreed to share a few thoughts about the connection between amateur and professional astronomy.

Dr. Colin Snodgrass at the VLT (Very Large Telescope) at Paranal Observatory, Chile.

Nearly all professional astronomers started out as amateur astronomers at some level; a childhood fascination with the stars combined with ability in physics leading to a degree in the subject, which for a lucky few gives the chance to make a career out of a hobby. The life of a professional astronomer is quite different from the hobby though — there is very little looking through telescopes involved in professional astronomy, and most of us struggle to identify any constellations apart from Orion! Indeed, I was recently amused to find (when clearing out old things from my parent’s house) a guide on how to become a professional astronomer that came with an amateur astronomy magazine. It contained a few articles about the route into it, and a guide to the universities offering astronomy courses that I had studied in great detail when still at school. The cover of the booklet showed the New Technology Telescope in Chile (an advanced professional telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory) with a caption explaining that professional astronomy was not all about using big telescopes like this one. The reason why this amused me was that I have since spent three years working at exactly this telescope, but the article was still correct. Most astronomers visit facilities like this very rarely (maybe only once a year) and spend most of their time working in an office with a computer, analysing the precious photons collected during the last visit to an observatory. These facilities are heavily oversubscribed, so the observations have to be planned and approved well in advance; mostly professional astronomers do not go to observatories and scan the skies for interesting things.

It is for this reason that the amateur astronomy community contributes significantly to science, as they have the time to search for the unexpected. The quality of telescopes available to amateurs is now very high, and many amateurs are amateur only in the sense that they aren’t paid for their work. Although there are professional surveys that scan the sky using automatic systems, the sheer number of amateur astronomers spending a few hours watching the stars each night mean that often it is the amateurs that first spot exciting new events, such as the outburst of comet Holmes in 2007. This was first reported by amateurs, and many professionals who then followed the event with the largest telescopes (and the Hubble Space telescope) first heard about this from posts by amateur observers on a Yahoo group. Another example is the round-the-clock monitoring of Jupiter: The giant planets are always favourite targets for amateur astronomers, as even the smallest telescope (or even binoculars) reveal beautiful details on these worlds. There are now so many people watching Jupiter that there have been explosions seen about once a year in the past few years (due to asteroids crashing into the planet) that have again triggered follow up observations by the world’s biggest telescopes.

Finally, there are a large number of amateur astronomers who dedicate their free time to tracking newly discovered asteroids that may be a threat to our own planet. These observations, combined with calculations from professionals, have so far shown that we are safe!

To find out more about Colin’s research on  comets, asteroids and exoplanets, visit his website.

8 comments on “The VL Amateur Astronomy Extravaganza, Part I

  1. annebrooke
    October 25, 2011

    Fantastic article, thanks, Kirsty! It’s made me want to rush out and look at the sky again – though I fear it won’t be as astonishing as one wonderful winter evening in Wales not too long ago – I simply hadn’t realised there were so many stars!…


  2. kirstyjane
    October 25, 2011

    Thanks, Anne! I very much hoped it would have that effect!

    It is amazing when you really see the stars, isn’t it? Unless you’re very lucky these days (and well situated) it’s a rare occurrence…

  3. Hilary
    October 25, 2011

    I really enjoyed both articles – thank you for posting them, Comrade K, and to Br Guy and Dr Colin. Brother Guy’s article was wonderful for the account of his experience as an author, and as someone who has had the pleasure of introducing people to the stars. Fascinated, too, by Colin’s take on the value of amateur astronomy – it is excellent to see amateur and professional communities valuing each other for their particular strengths.

    I count myself very lucky to have grown up with the stars. We lived in a country village where the streetlights went out at 10pm. In the 50s and 60s there was so much less light pollution, and so the Milky Way was there to been seen on any typical evening. I remember too being taken out into the garden to look out for Telstar (and maybe Sputnik? Would that be possible?) Anyhow, it gave me great pleasure to take my Birmingham-born husband satellite spotting on our first holiday in the depths of the countryside – he’d never seen any at all. Light pollution makes me sad 😦

  4. Pingback: The VL Amateur Astronomy Extravaganza, Part II « Vulpes Libris

  5. lisa
    October 26, 2011

    Fascinating. I particularly loved story about the ‘strange sky’ after the earthquake in L.A.

    But most astronomers not able to identify constellations?!? Surely that cannot be so?! Don’t they have them inked onto their arms or something, for easy reference…? 🙂

  6. Brother Guy
    October 26, 2011

    Sad but true, most professionals do not know the constellations. Those of us who do, probably learned them as kids (like I did). They are so much fun… so comforting when you are far from home… and so easy to learn. It just takes wanting to.

  7. kirstyjane
    October 27, 2011

    I never thought of the comfort angle, but I suppose it *is* comforting — wherever you happen to be, you can look up and see something familiar.

    Hmmm… *moseys off to look for a starchart*

  8. Pingback: Turn Left at Orion by Guy Consolmagno and Dan M Davis « Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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