Seeing in the Dark

Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

The night sky has always held a mystical place in my imagination. I had the thrilling good fortune to grow up in a place unpolluted by artificial light. No street lights to cut the night sky, no blinking traffic lights, no neon signs burning from storefront windows. Very few private homes had electricity so at most a soft glow from candles or kerosene lamps would emit from a window or two. That’s it. It was easy to look up into the Milky Way and get lost among its population of stars. To quote Natalie Merchant, “the stars were so many there, they seemed to overlap.” My favorite line her Maniacs song, The Painted Desert. Reading Seeing in the Dark set my memories on fire. I can remember stretching out, flat on my back, searching for satellites. We made a game of it. Who could first spot the unblinking light that moved so silently across the universe? But! I am so far in the weeds with this review.

Back to my last book for April…Ferris writes with such an easy style. This isn’t just about deep space, astronomy and star gazing. It is not dry and didactic. This is a memoir about Ferris’s childhood cardboard telescope dreams becoming reality. He takes us back to when he was just a kid, looking up in the Florida night sky, dreaming about rockets and moon walks; witnessing his first solar eclipse. It’s about sharing conversations with other amateurs, proving once and for all amateur stargazers really know what they are doing, despite not having the big buck telescopes and high-end gadgets. Seeing in the Dark is also about the collaborations between backyard stargazers and the people who have the money to make research happen. Take Brian May, for example. If he hadn’t been a musician be would have been an astronomer. Because of his success with his band, Queen, he has been able to support his hobby of backyard stargazing with better technology than the average hobbyist. Lastly, Seeing in the Dark is broad-based educational. I learned of a new place I want to visit, the Roden Crater in Arizona and I learned the difference between a meteoroid, a meteor, and a meteorite. I think too many people use those words interchangeably. Ferris cleared it up for me, once and for all.

Quotes I liked, “Love affairs can make you reckless and scar you for life, but what is life without love?” (p 82), “To put your eye or any other part of your anatomy at the focal point of a telescope pointed at the sun is like volunteering to be an ant under a magnifying glass” (p 76), and “…Charon, which orbits Pluto, which probably isn’t a planet” (p 104).

Reason read: April is National Astronomy month.

Author fact: Ferris has been nominated for a Pulitzer and four of his books are on my reading list.

Book trivia: It’s such a bummer that Ferris didn’t include any celestial photography. I love the night sky.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “Astronomical Ideas” (p 27).

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