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Astronomy Hacks 118

Fraser Cain (Mark Mortimer) writes "Hacking sounds crass. It manifests images of short cuts, jobs poorly done and people most interested in just finishing, no matter what. In the computer industry, sometimes this perfectly portrays hackers. However, for an expert, a hack is the complete opposite. It's a beautiful, well thought resolution that uses minimal effort. Often only those in the know truly appreciate it. Robert and Barbara Thompson in their book, Astronomy Hacks compile tips and techniques for observing the night sky. Their methods seem simple, yet they include detail to show they are experts who are presenting hacks derived from years worth of knowledge." Read on for the rest of Mark's review.
Astronomy Hacks - Tips & Tools for Observing the Night Sky
author Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson
pages 388
publisher O'Reilly Media Inc.
rating 8
reviewer Mark Mortimer
ISBN 0596100604
summary Hacking your telescope

This hack book can be taken two ways. One is as a reference to look up solutions to problems or seek a reference for a better method. Two is as a complete back grounder for the beginner and higher level amateur astronomer. Within it are 65 distinct hacks grouped into four chapters; Getting Started, Observing Hacks, Scope Hacks and Accessory Hacks. No embellishments obscure the text. There are only the hacks, each relating to astronomy the same way a Clymers manual refers to motorcycle repairs. No extenuating plots nor complex character development obstructs the wording. This book just lists lots of techniques, hints and recommendations.

The first chapter, Getting Started, has enough detail to guide the beginner or assist the intermediate practitioner. The standard encapsulation of binocular and telescope types ensues. To provide an example of the depth of detail, consider the binocular. The discussion includes; magnification, aperture, exit pupil, eye relief, field of view, interpupilary distance, prism type and lens coatings. A summary list recommends choices for various budget ranges ($75 to $5000) and gives recommendations on certain manufacturers and models.

The telescope selection hack is equally detailed, with descriptions of the three main types; reflector, refractors and catadioptric as well as criteria and recommendations. The authors are admitted fans of Dobsonian telescopes and tend to give more attention to this type both here and elsewhere in the book.

Safety, as the basis of its own hacks, or as a backdrop for many other hacks, appears throughout. Most is for personal safety, whether by staying in groups or not dropping large, heavy mirrors on toes. Perhaps the recommendations to bring a firearm for protection against four legged predators goes a bit far. The repeated references to courtesy for group viewing is just one of the many indicators of the wealth of the author's experience.

The chapter on observing hacks includes, among others, the principles of light, a comprehensive biological description of our eyes' receivers, and a method for running a Messier Marathon. This chapter revolves around the purpose or goals of amateur astronomers. Accepting that these aren't planning on detecting new stars or planets, the authors clearly convey the simple pleasures of viewing. Whether a person is taking copious notes, simple sketches or photographs, the rewards are many and admittedly differ with each person. Simple hacks to improve style or refine goals aid in refining the reward.

The scope hacks essentially look at scope maintenance, and they can get complex. There are step-by-step cleaning instructions for a 10-pound mirror, including swishing it under the faucet for minutes. The same goes for collimation, with its consideration of Strehl values and diffraction spikes. The reasoning and the simple instructions convince and empower the reader to take charge of his viewing capabilities.

The last chapter, Accessories Hacks, is chock full of the little tips to branching out in one's astronomy experience. Eyepieces and filters get a thorough treatment. Light-proofing your vehicle or using software to build custom star charts round out the suggestions.

In all, whether as a reference or as an introductory read, this book delivers. The background and justification for the hacks give sufficient information to believe in their value without overtaxing the brain. Neat hints, like keeping red pens away from night sites, help any observer from committing blunders. The table of contents and index simply and easily guide readers. While sketches, illustrations and photographs clarify many of the subtle points. There's even a note on the proper pronunciation of Greek letters.

With simple prose copiously sprinkled with personal, humorous anecdotes, the reading is a pleasure. Many references to manufacturers and equipment costs aid in selections today, though they probably won't stand the test of time. As well, there is very little on astro-photography. The authors simply say that this activity demands much practice and much equipment. Fair enough, but given the upsurge in computer literates, this area cries for more information.

Reading car repair manuals helps fix a car's problem or learn more about fixing cars in general. The same can be said for Astronomy Hacks. Each hack includes details, hints and tips to embellish a viewer's night time activities. Most of all it ably empowers you to take charge of your hobby and make the most of astronomical viewing.

You can purchase Astronomy Hacks from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Astronomy Hacks

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  • Is it just me, (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Radres ( 776901 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:52PM (#13116463)
    ...or does it seem like the first paragraph of this review has nothing to do with the rest of it? Nice diatribe on the use of the word "hack", unfortunately it is useless in obtaining a quick overview of what the article is about.
    • I agree, the first paragraph is frivolous. It's a shame the mods don't know the difference between a legitimate, topical critique and a troll.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      A hacker sued for changing the orbit of Pluto, thus affecting thosands of astrologers over the world.
    • The first seven sentences of the review read as a labored attempt at excusing a poor title, for it sounds as though this book actually has nothing to do with "hacks". Perhaps it would have been more appropriately titled "Astronomy Tips" or "Getting Started in Astronomy"?

      Now, if it had a chapter on how to boost the magnification of your telescope using only the innards of an electric toothbrush, that would be a hack.

  • Hack (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bodester17 ( 892112 )
    If you discover a hack does that make you a hack?
  • Darn . . . (Score:4, Funny)

    by StefanJ ( 88986 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:54PM (#13116486) Homepage Journal
    I was hoping this would be about cosmic engineering and turning large stars into Twelve Burst Firestorm with Loud Report supernova fireworks.
  • Astronomy Hack? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:54PM (#13116489)

    The skills used for 'astronomical observing' (astronomy?) take a long time to develop. I feel that a 'hack' involving this science/art-form helps keep people from learning about the wonders of being out in the night sky.

    In my opinion, learning from the 'little things' is what it is all about.

    How many people will appreciate the red pen reference until they have tried to read a red pen using nothing but red light?

    Perhaps it is just me.
  • by Alex P Keaton in da ( 882660 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:54PM (#13116494) Homepage
    If you think about it, the night sky is a lot like the internet- You can look at it for hours and lose yourself in it....
    As far as the book goes- a lot of these hacks come in handy- a lot of equipment that would have been out of reach for the hobbyist/am astronomer a few years ago are now somewhat affordable, so it may actually come in handy to know how to polish a 10 pound mirror.
    And believe me, you want a highly polished mirror in the summer, when blinds are left open and the neighbour's daughter is out sunning.... Speaking of polishing, I'll be back in a few minutes....
  • ima hacker! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 0110011001110101 ( 881374 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:55PM (#13116500) Journal
    experts who are presenting hacks derived from years worth of knowledge

    well slap my ass and call me a hacker.. I've been accumulating (and using) years worth of knowledge on band-aiding, skirting tight deadlines, and "just-get-it-done" attitudes.

    If only I could find a company to work for who isn't interested in hacks... *sigh*

    • Well, I am not going to buy this book, unless I can know ahead of time if the NASA/Lockheed "hack" that destroyed a $300 Million USD satellite (by mixing up units) and crashing it into Mars is included. (Got to see if anyone I know got mentioned in that escapade...)

      Of course, it wasn't really only Lockheed Martin's fault, but also NASA (mis-)management of that project. Somehow, from reading the review, I suspect that there will not even be a mention of that fiasco. (Yes, Mildred, it really IS rocket sci
  • by Aminion ( 896851 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:55PM (#13116501)
    Am I the only one getting feed up about books with "hack" in the title. It's not like the English language has a shortage of words. Now we got Google hacks, brain hacks and astronomy hacks.
  • I dunno (Score:3, Insightful)

    by VolciMaster ( 821873 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:55PM (#13116505) Homepage
    the concept of 'hacking' astronomy seems weak. Wouldn't just tips and ideas for getting a better experience be a better way to title it?

    Hacking implies the ability to alter something, which astronomy doesn't really lend it self to, much. I couldn't alter Tempel-1's path to avoid Deep Impact (just kidding), and I don't think I could 'hack' anything else in astronomy.

    • I dunno, "astronomy hack" seems more like plumbing your yard for liquid nitrogen using existing sprinkler system pipe, or turning a Mattel Barbie Photo Designer into a functioning spectrograph.
      • >I dunno, "astronomy hack" seems more like plumbing
        >your yard for liquid nitrogen using existing
        >sprinkler system pipe, or turning a Mattel Barbie
        >Photo Designer into a functioning spectrograph.

        Very funny!

        And, it also leads to an idea: a test equipment or laboratory hacks collection. We've all heard about or witnessed the occasional ingenuous non-standard lab trick. Collecting a bunch of anecdotal stories of real lab hacks could make for an entertaining read. It's no stupider than a lot of
    • Re:I dunno (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Evil W1zard ( 832703 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:07PM (#13116620) Journal
      Although I dislike the use of the word hacking in this context it technically isn't wrong to use it. One definition of hacking is "In a similar vein, a "hack" may refer to works outside of computer programming. For example, a math hack means a clever solution to a mathematical problem. The GNU General Public License has been described as a copyright hack because it cleverly uses the copyright laws for a purpose the lawmakers did not foresee."

      Soon the terms hack and hacking will be able to fit into anything. Like I found a way to make Mac and Cheese using less ingredients so I should publish it in my Food hacks book...
      • Although I dislike the use of the word hacking in this context it technically isn't wrong to use it. One definition of hacking is "In a similar vein, a "hack" may refer to works outside of computer programming. For example, a math hack means a clever solution to a mathematical problem. The GNU General Public License has been described as a copyright hack because it cleverly uses the copyright laws for a purpose the lawmakers did not foresee."

        The term hack is pretty much limited to a small subculture (i.

        • Its not like I made the definition above up... I took that definition directly from Wikipedia. Its not a prediction that the word hack is used out of the IT realm. The fact is it is happening which is why we see all these goofy books with hack in the title and news stories with hack being used to describe something other than IT related hacking.
  • For a second there I thought the book was about the people mentioned here. [url:]
  • Hack? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by millennial ( 830897 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:57PM (#13116520) Journal
    However, for an expert, a hack is the complete opposite. It's a beautiful, well thought resolution that uses minimal effort.
    Or, it's someone who is the complete opposite of an expert...
    For example: "Dr. Zell, why do those Thompson hacks insist on writing books about astronomy all the time? They should go find a new planet or something and stop wasting their time! Gosh!"
  • by Anonymous Coward
    When is O'Reilly going to release "Publishing Hacks", with a chapter on pairing "Hacks" with every imaginable topic?

    Bartending Hacks
    Dog Training Hacks
    Wine Tasting Hacks
    Lawn Hacks...
  • Hacking (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MindNumbingOblivion ( 668443 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:00PM (#13116554)

    Cool. I might check it out. I've got a lot of friends who are interested in stargazing, but are a little impatient with my attempts to explain things regarding astronomy (one reason I don't wish to be a teacher). I've been casually looking for an easy to use amateur's guide to help me figure out how to make myself understandable.

    Also, I like how it's a Hacks book on a physical science. Too many people, even in tech, think that hacking is only about computers. It's nice to reiterate that a hack is any type of bending or slick utilization of the rules to make a job easier. Whatever platform your hack is based on is your business.
  • Sample Hacks (Score:4, Informative)

    by Embedded Geek ( 532893 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:09PM (#13116636) Homepage
    I've always liked that O'Reilly puts up some samples so you can decide before you buy. Here are some samples from the book's main page []: Enjoy!
    • I'm not too impressed with the examples. You can learn all of them and more from going to a single star party.
      Using wideband and color filters for improved detail, installing weights for balancing a front-heavy scope, and printing charts don't qualify as "hacks". They're common knowledge for any observational astronomer with more than a year's worth of experience.
      Here's a good one for people with Dobs. Coat the inside of your tube with sawdust and flat black paint. This roughens up the inside surface and re
  • by IcephishCR ( 7031 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:09PM (#13116638) Journal
    Some of us think it wise to carry a firearm for proctection from two-legged predators as well, for those who think four-legged predators will not be a problem, perhaps you camp in your backyard more than the great outdoors!
  • In many Star Wars novels, the practice of what we call "hacking" was called "slicing".

    I liked it; sounds more graceful, requiring more diligence than just bashing into a network.

    • yes, the difference between the axe and the scalpel.

      Although I'm sure the Empire used more sophisticated computer systems so it absolutely required finesse. I'd recommend we start using the alternate term, but I'm sure it would be spun in an even worse fashion, seeing as nobody would be familiar with the new word and would automatically link it to knives or other blades. (I would fall out of my chair the first time someone mistakenly called 911 because their grandmother said she got sliced up.)

  • by Anonymous Coward
    If only the hacks helped me understand the zodiac better, I might be more inclined to buy it.
    • "The zodiac" doesn't necessarily imply "astrological".

      The term refers to the constellations (usually considered to number twelve, but not always) along the ecliptic, the path in the sky along which the Sun appears to travel in one year.

      There are plenty of ways the term is used in decisively non-astrological ways. For exmaple, the "zodiacal light" is a faint but discernable brightness in the sky along the ecliptic created by the diffuse dust in the plane of the solar system.
  • Hackery (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:10PM (#13116653) Homepage Journal
    "Hacking" is doing something with a system that its designer(s) did not expect. Some would say that every observation of the sky not mentioned in the Bible is a "hack". Others, particularly scientists free from such mystical sentiment, would say the only "astronomy hacks" are departures from the telescope manual. Just because a "trick" isn't common knowledge doesn't make it a hack. That's why the term "hack" is charged with connotations, good or bad, depending on how sacred you believe the rules to be.
  • Bring a gun. (Score:2, Interesting)

    From TFA: "Perhaps the recommendations to bring a firearm for protection against four legged predators goes a bit far."

    Far from the city lights, I've had two run-ins with coyotes while stargazing. I don't live in bear country; but maybe having something that says "nothing to see here, move along" wouldn't be a bad idea.

    • Re:Bring a gun. (Score:3, Insightful)

      by speleo ( 61031 ) *
      As Yoda would say "Break me a fucking give."

      I just read the first chapter of this book on O'Reilly's Safari and the authors make it sound like they're observing from downtown Bagdad.

      Between the warnings of not leaving women alone, bundling up for tick protection, and carrying a .44 revolver or 12-gauge shotgun, I have to wonder why they don't just setup a remote robotic telescope and observe from inside a locked bunker.

      Those reading this from outside the US probably think we're full of lunatics running a
      • Re:Bring a gun. (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jericho4.0 ( 565125 )
        I live in the boonies of BC, in bear country. There's a bear den about 300 feet up the mountain from my house. In my experience, people who don't live with bears have entirely the wrong ideas about them. Bears don't eat people, flat out. They eat berries, and fish, and the occasional rodent. Attacking a human is either defensive, or pathalogical.

        You do not need a gun, what's needed is a bit of education about bear safety. I'm not even going to suggest what the guy who had the coyote "run-in" needs.

        If yo

  • by Embedded Geek ( 532893 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:21PM (#13116741) Homepage
    The other day I stumbled across The Observatories of Sky & Telescope [], a collection of online articles where where the staff at S&T detail the construction of their own home observatories. Lots of photos and hints. They also provide an alternative [] for those of us who won't be pouring concrete any time soon.

    Quite neat.

  • Stupid English (Score:3, Insightful)

    by travdaddy ( 527149 ) <travo@linuxm a i l . o rg> on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:38PM (#13116873)

    1. Originally, a quick job that produces what is needed, but not well.

    2. An incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed.

    I swear, we need to just get rid of this word. I mean, that's bad, and not in a good way.
    • They just recently added the word "cankles" to the dictionary, so don't count on them removing the word "hack".
    • Arg. One grocery store in my neighborhood now offers 'organic' salt. I don't want 'organics' in my salt any more than I want 'hacks' in my software. Call me a traditionalist, but those words already had perfectly good definitions.
  • Certainly not for an expert software engineer or developer. Hack == crap.
    • by jonabbey ( 2498 ) *
      Feh. Ever studied biology? Talk about your hacks.. I'm with O'Reilly on renovating the term Hack. Think of it as 'informally applied cleverness', if it makes you feel any better.
      • Sorry, it will always mean 'shorcut due to lazy coders' to me.

        The term comes from the idea that instead of handling it properly, it just gets hacked up instead of done properly.
  • by kriegsman ( 55737 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:49PM (#13116963) Homepage
    For total night-sky newbies, try Stikky Night Skies []. As they say, "Learn 6 constellations, 4 stars, a planet, a galaxy, and how to navigate at night-in one hour, guaranteed." Using a mix of programmed instruction [] and engaging text, this short-but-sweet book acts as in "installer program" that installs some basic, fun astronomical information into your brain.

    They have the first section online here []. If you can't already find Betelgeuse, you will be able to fifteen minutes after clicking on this link.

    -Mark, simply an extremely satisfied customer, and budding night-sky observer
  • 1) Go to the local public dark sky observing site on the saturday closest to the new moon.

    2) set up the little crap scope that has been in your closet for years

    3) spend the rest of the night looking through everyone else's 18" dob

    4) ????

    5) PROFIT!

  • 1. Cheap USB digital camera with lense removed

    2. Pinhole (think aluminum foil and a pin)

    3. Observe Sun on your computer

    You fill in details.
  • Maybe I'm weird, but this I think would be a cool astronomy hack. I want to buy a big-ass telescope, hook it up to a computer, and search for near earth asteroids and comets and submit it to the NEO (or similar) project. For some reason, I'm under the impression that amatuer astronomers are useful for tracking near earth objects, although I guess the huge telescopes at observatories are probably even more useful for this sort of thing. And that will give me more impetus to learn celestrial mechanics, how
    • You're still on your rocker. Pro scopes are better for finding and tracking asteroids, but there aren't many of them, and they usually have better things to do. Amateurs, however, have the advantage of numbers and time, so things like asteroid tracking, supernova hunting and variable star measuring are good jobs for us.
  • When I saw "astronomy hacks" I thought they meant Google Moon. [] The "hack" part would be when you zoom all the way in on the surface of the moon.
    Holy cow ;-)

"Let every man teach his son, teach his daughter, that labor is honorable." -- Robert G. Ingersoll