Cumberland Times-News


June 8, 2014

Smithsonian guide to stars is a good one

At a local book store, I yielded to temptation and bought “Stars and Planets,” a Smithsonian Nature Guide written by four authors. Dinwoodie, Gater, Sparrow and Stott. It’s another Dorling Kindersley product with ISBN 978-0-7566-9040-3 and a 2012 copyright. “Stars and Planets” is a trade size paperback that is beautifully illustrated with appealing diagrams. “Stars and Planets” begins with the biggest topic, the Universe. There is a striking visual showing the known universe on the hugest scale, a delicate lacework of superclusters of galaxies with large voids. It resembles a bubble bath!

The observable universe is about 90 billion light years across. How far we can see is limited by the age of the universe. Beyond this cosmic horizon, the universe could go on forever.

After a coverage of the variety of objects seen from Earth, “Stars and Planets” explains how sky positions are specified and how these positions are affected by our Earth’s two main motions, rotation every day and revolution every year. “Why we have seasons?” is well explained by diagrams.

If you decide to make sky watching one of your hobbies, there are some steps to take: 1. Sky Charts. “Stars and Planets” has monthly star charts for both northern hemisphere and southern hemispheres. (People that live in Australia or South America, see our star groups upside down!) 2. Where are the planets? The planets are wanderers, creeping along the zodiac as they orbit the sun. “Stars and Planets” shows the positions of the seven planets near the start of each year with little colored dots with the year within.(2014 is shown by 14, to save space.) 3. Then how to find the sky objects on the
sky charts? You can use your hands and arms as degree “rulers.” (Stretch either arm fully and point your index finger upward; the width across that finger is about 1 degree. If you stretch apart your fingers while keeping the arm fully extended, the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger is 20 degrees.) 4. Then there is a nice treatment of observing devices — binoculars and telescopes. A brief look at astrophotography follows, including the use of smart phones to capture images.

The next section covers the solar system, the sun, planets and smaller bodies (which can collide with us!) Unusual sky phenomena such as haloes, sun dogs and aurorae are illustrated.

5. How are the stars organized? A two page-spread on our galaxy is very helpful, showing the view if we could travel vast distances and look back. Next are monthly star charts that can be used at a number of latitudes (such as Cumberland 40 N, Hawaii 20 N, Rio de Janeiro 20 S). For a more detailed look, there is a section on all 88 of the constellations that cover the entire sky. For the original 48 constellations, the myths and key telescopic sights are recounted.

For the 40 constellations recognized officially in 1925,“Stars and Planets” states the names and their reasons for naming the constellations after navigation instruments, parts of ships, and animals.

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