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Amateur Night

David Levy

Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. Timothy Ferris. xviii + 379 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2002. $26.

Like most of Timothy Ferris's readers, I'm a fan. His writing is passionate, his explanations are vivid and easy to follow, and his illustrations are clear. Ferris's latest effort, Seeing in the Dark, is a valuable addition to the army of books he has written to increase our understanding and appreciation of the universe.

As Ferris notes in the preface, Seeing in the Dark "is about stargazing, which is at once one of the oldest and most ennobling, and one of the newest and most challenging, of human activities." At the heart of the book are Ferris's accounts of his visits with amateur astronomers. Nonprofessionals are now doing much to increase our understanding of the night sky. With Ferris as our guide, we're invited into their observatories and backyards to share in the fun and adventure.

Far more personal than Ferris's other works, the book includes an account of his own experiences, of "what happens in the moment when ancient starlight strikes the eye and incites the mind." His opening description of himself in his observatory at dusk had me hooked—he takes the sky as personally as I do. As I picture him opening his telescope cover, I can almost imagine the distant galaxies getting excited and asking themselves, "What can we teach him about the red limit tonight?"

Ferris continues in an autobiographical vein in the chapter called "Spaceflight," offering a brief personal glimpse into a major historical event—the launch of Sputnik—and the nation's reaction to it:

At school Monday morning the principal addressed us on the PA system and said we were all going to have to work harder at science and math if we were going to beat the Russians.

The shock of Sputnik was good news to me and my friends in the astronomy club. We'd been in love with rockets and space for years, but nobody else much cared. Now, for a little while, pretty girls asked us questions about satellites and stared into our eyes while we explained how rocket engines work.

Alas, the dream of all astro-nerds!

Expertly woven in with Ferris's reminiscences are accounts of meetings with stargazers the world over. He visits a number of amateurs, including, among others, Stephen James O'Meara (who saw radial spokelike features on the rings of Saturn years before they showed up in Voyager 1 images, and who was the first to spy Halley's comet on its recent return), Barbara Wilson ("one of the world's most skilled observers"), Patrick Moore (England's great popularizer of astronomy, who has written more than 60 books and has a television show about to enter its 47th year), and (full disclosure) me. He also describes encounters with a couple of ghosts—Percival Lowell and John Henry (the steel driver)—and a virtual visit to a robotic telescope. His detailed descriptions of scientific matters are highly accurate. I spotted only one error—the Peekskill fireball landed on the trunk of a young woman's car in 1992, not 1993.

The book concludes with another excerpt from Ferris's own observatory log—a Thoreauvian account of a predawn observing session in the company of an owl named Minerva. Ferris sees a bat and thinks of these lines from William Blake: "The Bat that flits at close of Eve/Has left the brain that won't believe." He then imagines conversing with Blake about whether the galaxies are real or figments of the imagination: "My imagination is insufficient to have conjured them," he thinks. "I believe that we are involved with them, somehow, but as to how that might be—what, in other words, is the true relationship between mind and matter, once the silt of Cartesian dualism is wiped away—I remain uncertain." When Ferris lets his thoughts roam like this, the book truly soars.

In Seeing in the Dark, we get to look at the amateur observing experience through the eyes of a master. The book deserves a place of honor in the library of anyone infatuated with astronomy.—David H. Levy, Parade Magazine, Tucson, Arizona

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