Notes from Under Sky

Through the Telescope

In which I review this book

Title: Through the Telescope: A Guide for the Amateur Astronomer, by Patricia Barnes-Svarney and Michael Porcellino
Price: $19.95 (list)
Published 2000 by McGraw-Hill
ISBN 0-07-134804-2, 310 pp.

Do we really need another guide for beginners in amateur astronomy? For years, Norton's Star Atlas and the various Terence Dickinson books have been popular and appropriate recommendations. The former is chock full of goodies in addition to its titular atlas (which is really not the greater portion of that book), and Dickinson has written so many attractive, useful books that it's getting hard to keep track.

Still, beginners look to the experts not only for facts but for guidance in what to buy, how to get started, etc. And as well-meaning as Dickinson and the other writers are, their perspectives in the end are their own, and it can't hurt to get some others, so long as the other perspectives are well-grounded.

That last bit begins to get at the problems with Through the Telescope, by Patricia Barnes-Svarney and Michael Porcellino. Barnes-Svarney is principally a science writer, with over 20 books to her credit; she has also written for Astronomy magazine. She has undertaken the task of revising this book, which was written 11 years ago by the late Michael Porcellino, who was an active member of the Chicago Astronomical Society, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO), and the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

The layout of the book is well-designed, if a bit traditional. The opening chapter is an appeal to the emotional impact of astronomy, what makes it compelling. The next few chapters are devoted to first the abilities of the eye, then binoculars, and lastly telescopes and related equipment. The last half or so of the book covers what can be seen in the way of the moon and planets, solar system debris, multiple and variable stars, deep sky objects, and lastly, the sun. As is almost de rigeur in the Internet age, an appendix lists some worthwhile web sites.

Unfortunately, the book is almost completely undermined by blurry photos, poor diagrams, and a host of inaccuracies, misleading statements, and outright blunders. The photos are all black-and-white—not a problem in and of itself, but they are also fuzzy and blurry, and don't show what they're intended to. One such photo is taken to show the view through the eyepiece tube of a collimated Newtonian. All that can be seen is a white circular disc (the illuminated inside of the tube, I suspect), and a black disc with a stalk (the secondary). No view of the primary can be seen in the secondary, let alone the return reflection of the secondary. I'm sure the photos were taken for the original, 1989 edition, but they should have been redone for the new revision.

The diagrams are often no better. Most introductory books have a shaded schematic of the celestial globe, that imaginary shell of stars that seems to surround us at night; the shading helps us to visualize in three dimensions. In this book, however, the diagram is just a line drawing with no depth whatsoever. The book draws significantly on sample ALPO and AAVSO forms and maps, but these seem to have been faxed over with a very low resolution machine. The pixellation is horrendous. Even some of the astrophotos are pixellated; a NASA picture of M13 looks as if we were observing it through a screen door.

Worse yet, the captions to some of these diagrams and photos are almost laughable in their imprecision or inaccuracy. One photo showing a long-focus refractor is labelled, "A Dobsonian telescope." In another, a pair of binoculars (with angle prisms, no less!) dwarfs the astronomy magazine it rests on, and yet the caption reads, with no trace of irony, "7x35 binoculars." M8, the Lagoon Nebula, is later labelled a globular cluster.

The text is better, in general, but there are still sticking points. In an introduction to telescope optics, it's stated that those optics are susceptible to five different aberrations. It then goes on to describe four: chromatic and spherical aberration, coma, and astigmatism. What's the fifth? What's more, the causes of coma and astigmatism are simply wrong—for example, coma is described as on-axis rays focusing off-axis. Actually, that's just miscollimation; coma results from differences in lateral magnification for off-axis rays.

Similar mistakes are made in the physical arena. The visual bridge between M51 and NGC 5195 is seen as "really two objects joined together." We are also told that "only two [supernova] have been recorded in our own Milky Way in almost 1,000 years." Clearly, Tycho's 1572 supernova and Kepler's in 1604 are being referred to here, but even putting aside the 1006 and 1054 supernovae as being conceivably outside the range of "almost 1,000 years," what about Cassiopeia A? There are other supernovae that are known to have blown in the last 1,000 years, without being recorded visually.

It's not all wrong, of course. There is much that is right with this book. The planetary observing chapter is full of good tips, specifically for each planet in the solar system. Unfortunately, the errors are so plentiful that I would have a hard time knowing when the book is right and when it's wrong. That mistrust spreads like a disease throughout the text. As an illustration, consider that I've been keeping track of errors and new information for Dickinson's Nightwatch for about a year, and I have yet to find more than a handful. On the other hand, 20 minutes of browsing Through the Telescope netted me a dozen mistakes and sore points.

As I said at the beginning of this review, it's helpful to get advice from multiple people, especially when one is venturing into a new hobby. Once someone leads you astray once, though, it's hard to keep trusting them, even if they're right most of the time. Through the Telescope is right most of the time, but it's wrong more than often enough for the careful reader to quickly shelve it for the last time.

Copyright (c) 2000 Brian Tung