Stargazers! Sure, there's plenty to see in the night sky tonight. But take a break and don't miss "Seeing in the Dark," a beautiful and very mellow PBS exploration of the joys of backyard astronomy. It was written and produced by science writer Timoth Ferris, who wrote the delightful book of the same name, which explored Ferris' own youthful discovery of the night sky.
I got a preview copy of the special, and it's terrific. Accompanied by music from Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher, this special is beautifully photographed and paced - like a night out under the stars.
It focuses on amateurs, and the astonishing images and discoveries that have become possible for them thanks to a new generation of (more or less) affordable telescopes, laptop computers and image-processing software. I own a small telescope, and I enjoy poking around among the stars and planets I've learned to identify. I will never own the kind of equipment these folks work with, and I will never get into the hobby as deeply as they have. But I know enough to appreciate their skill and passion. Some are making serious contributions to science.
Mostly, though, I just share their amazement as they gather under a dark sky and marvel at the stars.
The film airs at 8 p.m. tonight, Wednesday Sept. 19, on PBS, Channels 22 and 26 in Baltimore. Enjoy.
The sun and moon, the planets and meteors, stars and galaxies are always there, accessible to anyone with the curiosity to look up and explore, and yet safely beyond our meddling.
In his new book, Seeing in the Dark, science writer Timothy Ferris
demonstrates that amateurs are making an impact. The advent of better telescopes, digital photography, personal computers and the Internet have enabled them to make important contributions to what is arguably a new Golden Age of astronomy.
Devoted, sleep-deprived stargazers, some toiling in their own back yards with hardware once available only to professionals, have discovered hundreds of variable stars. They have tipped off the professionals to the appearance of asteroids, comets and exploding stars.
Amateurs' unpaid obsession has made them valued chroniclers of long-term phenomena -- such as Jupiter's Great Red Spot -- that professionals can't afford to follow.
guides us on parallel tours -- one across the cosmos, the other to nighttime haunts of such extraordinary amateurs as Stuart Wilber. A part-time New Mexico math teacher, Wilber was peering at Saturn with his home-built, backyard telescope in 1991 when he spied an unexpected "white pinprick of light" on the planet's surface. In days, professionals all over the world -- even the Hubble Space Telescope -- were focused on a gigantic new Saturnian storm.
"In how many areas of science can you still make an important discovery without a ton of funding?" asked Alice Newton, who, with her husband Jack founded a bed-and-breakfast observatory in Florida.
' best-selling books about the cosmos and its professional explorers -- The Whole Shebang and Coming of Age in the Milky Way -- were lucid and literate and set the standard for popular books about astronomy.
In this unexpectedly personal new book, he is charming and lyrical describing his own boyhood awakening to the stars, and the enduring wonder that he and other stargazers feel under the night sky.
Yet it's not always clear whom Ferris
is writing for.
Experienced amateurs who grind their own mirrors or write their own software may find little new in Ferris
' introductory tour of the cosmos, or his 65-page appendix of star charts and galactic coordinates.
Novices and dabblers like myself, on the other hand, may nod off somewhere between galaxies NGC 1023 and NGC 2841 or, worse, become discouraged with our "wretched" yet pricey little telescopes that fall short, even, of those Ferris
rates as "small."
And that would be too bad. For as Ferris
says, the night sky is enchanting, and "stargazing can be as much an aesthetic as an intellectual pursuit, its aim an informed attuning of our sense of beauty to the wider reality that surrounds us."
Frank D. Roylance
, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade. In 1994, he wrote an extensive article on the discovery of a fossil of Homo erectus in Kenya by Johns Hopkins anatomist Alan C. Walker.
All content herein is © 2007 The Baltimore Sun and may not be republished without permission.