Book Review: NatGeo's Backyard Guide to the Night Sky

I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of National Geographic’s Backyard Guide to the Night Sky for my first “official” book review.  (My first “unofficial” one was for Death from the Skies.) So instead of fearing for our lives and civilization, let’s enjoy the wonders that the night sky and the universe have to offer.

To be honest, I usually skip things like forewords, but please, do stop and read this one.  It’s a very touching story of one woman’s fascination with the sky, starting from a young age. Then check out “How to Use this Book” since it highlights small and easily overlooked features like weblinks for more information.  I sat down (over a few sessions) to read this book from cover to cover, but I do not think that is how it was meant to be read.  You can just as easily pop into the table of contents and jump into your favorite topics.  The book progresses from near objects to far, but the chapters don’t need to be read in order to be understandable.  In fact, I noticed at times that words or concepts are introduced before being fully explained, such as star-hopping or magnitudes.  So jumping around is encouraged.

I would encourage readers to check out the very first pages called “Into the Dark” before ever stepping outside for an observing session.  This gives practical tips for even the most casual observer.  Some of them mirror our own recommendations to students taking our night labs at UVa: bring a sweatshirt, no flashlights (unless red), let your eyes get dark-adapted, etc.  Now, if all of our students actually read and followed those guidelines, night lab would be a little more pleasant for all!

The physics and astronomy discussed is accurate and up-to-date.  There are not many explanatory diagrams for difficult concepts, but each section gives a good taste of some astronomical topic, from sunspots to planets and galaxies to the Big Bang.  Reading this book can also help clear up some common misconceptions, such as there being a “dark side of the Moon,” and it is unapologetic in its take-down of astrology.  There is a bias in all of the images towards the optical part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is too bad, since the “invisible” universe is just as fascinating.  Being a backyard guide, however, means that it is going to be useful for a budding optical observer.

For anyone that knows me personally, you know I’m not actually very good at handling a telescope. My excuse is that I grew up in a city, so my attempts at amateur astronomy were mediocre at best.  Had I followed some of the advice in this book, I may have been better off!  The “Guide to Telescopes” advises new users to try binoculars and get familiar with the sky before jumping into a telescope purchase.  You can go ahead and get started with the maps in this book!  There are 4 seasonal maps that highlight the main constellations, stars, and deep sky objects.  You may have to break the book’s spine, however, to flatten out the book and use more easily.  These are probably best used with the naked eye or binoculars for a general sky tour.  You can get a bit more detail, if desired, in the small inset maps for each constellation in the section that follows.  I’m especially excited to brush up on my constellation mythology for public nights! Or maybe some certain Star Party that’s coming up this week in Atlanta… If you are looking for planets, turn to the back for a table of the rough positions of the planets through 2020. It won’t help you find it exactly on a map, but if you see a particularly bright “star” that’s not on your map, it is probably one of the planets, and you can check!

So in conclusion, if you are just getting started in astronomy, this is a great place to go! Don’t be shy to take your interest further, however, if you are piqued by a particular topic.  Also, check out a very helpful review by Mike Simonsen on his blog. Clear skies!

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