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'Seeing in the Dark': beauty of the heavens


Seeing in the Dark, by Timothy Ferris. Simon & Schuster. 379 pages. $26.

Unlike most sciences -- say, archaeology, biology or chemistry -- astronomy is something even the most unschooled and clumsy amateurs can do without breaking, killing or blowing up anything.

The sun and moon, the planets and meteors, stars and galaxies are always there, accessible to anyone with the curiosity to look up and explore, and yet safely beyond our meddling.

In his new book, Seeing in the Dark, science writer Timothy Ferris demonstrates that amateurs are making an impact. The advent of better telescopes, digital photography, personal computers and the Internet have enabled them to make important contributions to what is arguably a new Golden Age of astronomy.

Devoted, sleep-deprived stargazers, some toiling in their own back yards with hardware once available only to professionals, have discovered hundreds of variable stars. They have tipped off the professionals to the appearance of asteroids, comets and exploding stars.

Amateurs' unpaid obsession has made them valued chroniclers of long-term phenomena -- such as Jupiter's Great Red Spot -- that professionals can't afford to follow.

Ferris guides us on parallel tours -- one across the cosmos, the other to nighttime haunts of such extraordinary amateurs as Stuart Wilber. A part-time New Mexico math teacher, Wilber was peering at Saturn with his home-built, backyard telescope in 1991 when he spied an unexpected "white pinprick of light" on the planet's surface. In days, professionals all over the world -- even the Hubble Space Telescope -- were focused on a gigantic new Saturnian storm.

"In how many areas of science can you still make an important discovery without a ton of funding?" asked Alice Newton, who, with her husband Jack founded a bed-and-breakfast observatory in Florida.

Ferris' best-selling books about the cosmos and its professional explorers -- The Whole Shebang and Coming of Age in the Milky Way -- were lucid and literate and set the standard for popular books about astronomy.

In this unexpectedly personal new book, he is charming and lyrical describing his own boyhood awakening to the stars, and the enduring wonder that he and other stargazers feel under the night sky.

Yet it's not always clear whom Ferris is writing for.

Experienced amateurs who grind their own mirrors or write their own software may find little new in Ferris' introductory tour of the cosmos, or his 65-page appendix of star charts and galactic coordinates.

Novices and dabblers like myself, on the other hand, may nod off somewhere between galaxies NGC 1023 and NGC 2841 or, worse, become discouraged with our "wretched" yet pricey little telescopes that fall short, even, of those Ferris rates as "small."

And that would be too bad. For as Ferris says, the night sky is enchanting, and "stargazing can be as much an aesthetic as an intellectual pursuit, its aim an informed attuning of our sense of beauty to the wider reality that surrounds us."

Frank D. Roylance, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade. In 1994, he wrote an extensive article on the discovery of a fossil of Homo erectus in Kenya by Johns Hopkins anatomist Alan C. Walker.

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