The Big Think

August 11, 2007

Sky Writer

Filed under: Telescope — jasony @ 10:58 am

A few years ago I came across the three volume work Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. I hadn’t heard or read anything about it, but it was really cheap (I think it was five bucks for all 2100 pages in three volumes), so I picked it up. It has sat unopened on my bookshelf for several years. I thought that it was mostly just a sky survey with coordinates for finding various objects like stars, nebulae, and Messier objects. Pretty dry stuff, but a good reference for only $5, and certainly useful for the upcoming telescope project.

In doing some reading this past week, I caught a few references to the Handbook and the slavish devotion that many admirers of the night sky place in it. I brought it off the astronomy bookshelf and gave it another look. It turns out that when I briefly perused it in the bookstore a few years ago I had only opened it up to the star charts and lists of coordinates. There are whole sections that are full of essays, commentary, history, and all kinds of other amazing writing about the night sky. It’s a treasure trove that took one man, Robert Burnham Jr, over a decade of patient solitary work to construct.

I did a little more digging and unearthed this article about Burnham himself and his sad life.

I’ve pulled all three volumes off the shelf. Volume three is currently open on my desk and I’m amazed by what is in there. Burnham chose to organize his book around the constellations. He takes a certain constellation, Orion, for instance, and describes the technical aspects of it (location, stars, dual stars, colors, etc), and then goes into the history of the constellation as seen from the eyes of many different cultures. He also throws other anecdotes around each constellation or star grouping. It’s really fascinating reading. I’m looking forward to digging through it.

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