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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.

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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.
  • Hack (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bodester17 ( 892112 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @03:52PM (#13116467)
    If you discover a hack does that make you a hack?
  • 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....
  • 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.

  • 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 UCFFool ( 832674 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:06PM (#13116612)
    Language is very commonly used as a Fad []. This is also referred to in advertising as a 'catch-phrase'. If you are Paris Hilton, it is the new 'hot' phrase.
    And finally, if you are microsoft, it is a 'feature'.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Re:Bring a gun. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by speleo ( 61031 ) * on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @05:27PM (#13117331) Homepage
    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 around in the wild raping and pillaging. Assuming, of course, the wild bears and coyotes don't get you first.

    I've been from one side of the US to the other over the years, speeding many a night in remote places and have never need to use a weapon against any critter (beyond a little chemical warfare against mosquitoes).

    One of my favorite statics on this sort of thing is deaths in Yellowstone National Park between 1839 - 1994. There were less deaths due to bears (4) than indian battles (7). The number one cause of death is drowning (101). Perhaps a flotation device would be a good idea for star gazing in remote areas. Can't be too safe, you know...

"If it's not loud, it doesn't work!" -- Blank Reg, from "Max Headroom"