Notes from Under Sky

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

In which I review this book

Title: The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, 2nd Edition, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer
Price: about $50 U.S.
Published 2002 by Firefly Press
ISBN 1-55209-507-X, 336 pp., hardbound

Terence Dickinson is perhaps the leading writer of English-language amateur astronomy books; his Nightwatch is rightly considered one of the best introductions to the night sky and how to observe it. It covers the broad range of amateur astronomy admirably, from science to equipment to observing tactics. One of the only glaring drawbacks to the book is that it is simply too short.

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide is an able sequel. Written with fellow Canadian amateur Alan Dyer, it goes further in depth than does Nightwatch. Because it also goes into specifics in recommending telescopes and accessories, however, it quickly grew out of date. A somewhat updated and revised edition came out in 1994, but more than eight years have passed since then, and most of the models described there have been discontinued, although a few workhorses have continued to the present day.

Now, at last, this book is available in a true second edition. The changes are at once obvious and subtle. Obvious, in that the production is stunning: the old photos, mostly black-and-white, have been replaced by beautiful full-color images of the night sky and detailed diagrams of equipment. Subtle, in that the table of contents reads almost the same; it's not so much the inherent content that has changed so much as how it's presented.

One chapter from the first edition that has disappeared is one entitled "Ten Myths About Telescopes and Observing." In the first edition, this chapter was praised by reviewers and readers alike (and excoriated by some other readers, too!); it undoubtedly surpassed Dickinson and Dyer's expectations in terms of the amount of discussion it engendered. Whether you agree with them or not, they have at least educated their readers about the dispute over these myths. It's hardly the case that anyone makes claims like "Images Appear Brighter in Fast Telescopes" (Myth #2 from the 1994 edition) without being challenged.

Perhaps because of that, and also because Dickinson and Dyer may have felt that it was more important to make sure that beginners (who might buy this book without buying Nightwatch first) were able to use their equipment effectively, the myths chapter has been replaced by an introduction to using telescopes. Like all the other chapters, this one is lavishly illustrated and finely detailed, enough so that one can follow along, step-by-step, in assembling and orienting a telescope and its mount. For example, nearly a full page is devoted to getting a telescope on a GEM, or German Equatorial Mount, to cross the meridian, a tough task for beginners to figure out on their own.

Also substantially changed in presentation is the chapter on finding your way around the night sky. The vagaries of navigation, the celestial sphere, and the nightly movements of the planets, are here illustrated by several pages of diagrams, printed from a number of different planetarium programs. This book has definitely felt the impact of computer visualization of the sky.

Elsewhere, the material has been updated more than changed. New equipment has replaced old equipment, and some of that old equipment now appears in a "classics" category—things to look for in the used telescopes bin. There is a new spin on the chapter on accessories: these have been divided into must-haves, nice-to-haves, and don't-haves. (Much to my surprise, the two-dollar eye patch that I find so handy to relieve strain on my right eye—I'm left-eyed—has been unceremoniously dumped in the don't-have category.)

Should you buy this book? If you don't have it yet, and you'd like a comprehensive, easy-to-understand reference, this is the one. There really is nothing else like it on the market today. If you have one of the older editions, the decision is harder. Certainly, there's enough overlap that you can probably find out newer information from various sources without spending 50 dollars. But it's hard to get it all in one place, and the new edition certainly is a visual treat.

Copyright (c) 2003 Brian Tung