Notes from Under Sky

The Planetary Observer's Handbook

In which I review this book

Title: The Planet Observer's Handbook, by Fred W. Price
Price: about $35, street
Published 1994 by Cambridge University Press (reprinted 1998, 1999)
ISBN 0-521-62708-7, 430 pp.

One of the things I've always disliked about telescope ads is the astounding amount of detail they show in photographs that for no good reason are cropped in a circle, to give the reader the impression that such a view is routine at the eyepiece. One of the worst offenders was the older Celestron G3/G5 ad, which showed a Voyager image of Jupiter nearly filling a circular "field of view," with one of the moons—I think it was Europa—easily visible crossing the South Equatorial Belt.

To set things right, a reader exposed to one of these marketing travesties should chase it with a copy of Fred Price's Planetary Observer's Handbook, a weighty tome of over 400 pages, covering highlights of each of the nine major planets and their satellites. There is also an introduction to celestial mechanics, as well as a primer on optics and telescope equipment. It even explains what the Tolles and monocentric eyepiece designs are, in case you were wondering. (I was.) In the back are chapters on map projection, photography, videography, and photometry.

The main body of the book is chapters 5 through 13, each one dedicated to a major planet, except for chapter 8, which is on the asteroids. Each chapter gives a summary physical description of the planet, its place in the solar systems, its satellites if any. This is followed by the story of the planet's discovery (for Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) and an overview of historical study of the planet. This part for me makes wonderful reading—it's entertaining to find out what people used to think about Mars.

The rest of each chapter is devoted to features that can be seen by an ordinary observer through ordinary equipment. Generally speaking, the sketches in the book are representative of what I've seen through amateur scopes, ranging from 70 mm to 13 inches. Beginning observers should realize that sketches generally show more than can be seen in a single view or even in photographs, since the sketch can incorporate details seen in different parts of the planet's disc at different times over a period of observing.

This standard form for each of the planet chapters doesn't constrain the content at all, though. Novices may be surprised by how much the planets differ from each other. Special consideration is given to the surface markings on Mars, the cloud belts and the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, and of course the rings of Saturn, with special techniques to be employed on each one. And that only scratches the surface; there is a wealth of information in this book.

This book was first published in 1994, but the text somehow has an older feel to it. Numerous pencil sketches and line drawings with ink blobs add to this. One unfortunate attribute is a wide array of typos. In one place, a dimension is given as 1300 km when it should clearly be 300 km; this kind of thing happens in numerous places throughout the book. Somewhat less annoying is the inconsistent precision of measures; the width of the Cassini division, for example, is given as "2686 miles (4000 km)."

These quibbles shouldn't detract from your enjoyment of the book, though, whose main benefit is in an exhaustive list, qualitatively described, of the features worth looking for on a planet as seen through a quality telescope. There are those who say that knowing what features are there may delude you into thinking you actually see them, but there's no doubt in my mind that reading this book charges you up to look; it's up to you to maintain the integrity as to whether you can see them. Price's book even makes great cloudy night reading (which, alas, is good news for me right now). At about $35, it's well worth the price.

Copyright (c) 1999 Brian Tung