How to Gaze at the Southern Stars
Awa Press, $24.95,
Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Not many people respond to Hopkins’ urgings. Maybe all those exclamation marks put them off. On public nights at our local observatory, we find that hardly any of those good folk who come along can recognise the great constellations of Orion and Scorpius. Even fewer know that the Southern Cross includes the closest star to Earth (after Sol), or that the said star – Alpha Centauri – is actually three stars. A lot don’t understand the difference between a star and a planet, or they think that the Moon shines with its own light. Isn’t it dreadful when others don’t share your obsession?
Quite a lot of those who come do know about space exploration. A number can talk speculatively about cosmology: Black Holes, the expanding universe, the death of stars. But astronomy in the sense of identifying changing features of the night sky – changing quickly as the Earth orbits the Sun; changing slowly as our solar system does its 250-million-year trudge around the Milky Way – seems low on most intellectual hit lists.
Partly it’s because astronomy, as in active viewing, requires socially unfriendly hours. Partly it’s the wallpaper syndrome: the stars will always be there (oh no, they won’t), so we needn’t bother to look at them. And partly it’s because of light pollution, in an increasingly urban society with minimal understanding of how to light streets and properties effectively and considerately. Hardly anyone except cranky astronomers worries about this, but how would they feel if their blue daytime sky were turned cerise from light pollution?
Anyway, things are looking up (ho ho) in New Zealand astronomy. There’s increased membership. There are superb ambassadors such as Wellington’s Frank Andrews and Marilyn Head. There are new/refurbished observatories, and projects such as Stonehenge Aotearoa. And there are good books for our part of the celestial globe. The last include the colourful, very low-priced New Zealand Astronomical Yearbook from Auckland’s Stardome Observatory; Heifetz and Tirion’s competent A Walk Through the Southern Sky; Vicki Hyde’s splendid Godzone Skies. And now there’s this, from the senior public programmes officer at Wellington’s Carter Observatory.
Hall’s succinct stellar survey is aimed at that shy woodland creature, the General Reader. The general attentive reader, anyway: there’s a lot packed in here. It begins with a (fairly) brief history of how ancient western civilizations saw the stars. Hall offers a cheerfully unsubstantiated explanation of the Star of Bethlehem: “the conjunction of bright stars, and a nova”. We get a summary of solar chemistry and physics; clear explanations with diagrams of solstices, seasons, cycles; how to find Orion, the Summer Triangle, the Pleiades and the Pointers, now and in 22,004 AD.
It’s a book with a practical emphasis – How to Gaze – and practical suggestions. Try good binoculars before you buy a telescope; cover your torch with red cellophane to protect your night vision; use your outstretched hand or fist to measure angles. It’s not afraid to lean on tried and trite analogies: “There are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world.” It comes up with some original ones, including a neat motor vehicle image to explain the apparent backward movements of planets in the sky.
There are nuggets of information: how Aquarius got its name not from any evocative shape but from its rising just before the rainy season; how the appearance of Vega/Whanui told Maori that summer was waning. It suffers from some coy chapter headings: “Things that go bump in the night”; “Diamonds in the sky”; “Looking for Goldilocks”. It gets florid a few times, especially when depicting “a small family of our ancestors” on the African savannah. It can’t spell “minuscule”; it has a plethora of rhetorical questions and a fair few flaccid exhortations: “Sit back and imagine how you would feel if there were no clocks, calendars … .” It has a pretty decent glossary which doesn’t scorn the basic terms, a couple of handy tables, a set of fairly drab star charts.
It’s comprehensive and enthusiastic. It’s lucid and uncondescending. You don’t measure the success of this book by how often you pick it up, but by how often you put it down while you and your torch with red cellophane head outside to find what Richard Hall is talking about. You’ll be doing that a fair bit.
David Hill is a New Plymouth writer and very amateur astronomer.