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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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  • 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*

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • by SoundGuyNoise ( 864550 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:09PM (#13116639) Homepage
    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.

  • Bring a gun. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:17PM (#13116715)
    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.

  • by jonabbey ( 2498 ) * <> on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @04:59PM (#13117068) Homepage
    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.
  • Re:Bring a gun. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jericho4.0 ( 565125 ) on Wednesday July 20, 2005 @07:22PM (#13118783)
    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 you really do want to do something more proactive, take a dog. Even a Jack Russel can chase off any bear. (we have 2 Wolfhound X Bull Mastif crosses, who would probably be dragging bears home if they could)

COMPASS [for the CDC-6000 series] is the sort of assembler one expects from a corporation whose president codes in octal. -- J.N. Gray