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Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril

Timothy Ferris

Simon & Schuster

US Hardcover

ISBN 0-684-86579-3

Publication Date: 09-05-2002

380 Pages; $26.00

Date Reviewed: 09-11-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Non-Fiction, Science Fiction


The typical picture of the astronomer in my mind, and the minds of most readers, is that of a tall man wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard, occasionally bending over to peer into the eyepiece of an enormous, expensive telescope in a remote mountaintop location. This is the scientist at his most scientific, a man who never leaves the earth but only studies that which never comes to earth. This is remote and academic, accomplished and incredibly intellectual. This is patient and productive, professional and professorial. But there are scores of astronomers who are anything but professional or professorial, and yet they are making huge contributions to the science. A case in point is the gentleman who only yesterday announced that he had discovered that the earth has a second moon. In 'Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril', author Timothy Ferris makes a case for the amateur astronomer's contributions to science. But most importantly, he tells a compelling tale of interesting people in gorgeous language. Whether you're interested in astronomy or not -- and it's hard to come away from this book without being interested in astronomy -- the people and the language that Timothy Ferris summons are a compelling reason to read this book.

I haven't read Ferris' other work, though I might be inclined to do so now. But 'Seeing in the Dark' is certainly not what I expected of a "popular science" book about astronomy. It's a very personal seeming work, which begins with Ferris' reminiscences of his Florida childhood, building models of rockets and looking at the stars. He then heads out on a carefully crafted tour of the universe, via the amateur astronomers who are studying it. The book is very cleverly written so that no section is dauntingly long, and each is filled with portraits of the fascinating people who are studying the stars.

These portraits of the people are interspersed with advice and effective inspiration to get the reader out and looking at the sky, even if you're only using your bare eyes. Ferris is gifted at giving the reader hints on how to make the transition from clueless novice to interested amateur. For example, one suggestion he has is that the beginner make a list of what he intends to see on a given night. It's something that might never have occurred to me, but in itself it really pulls the whole enterprise out of the hall closet and onto the back porch. Ferris debunks the myths that you need an ultimately clear pitch black sky to see interesting astronomical phenomena. In fact, you can even gather crucial scientific data in a citified sky. And he interleaves his suggestions with personal anecdotes and ten years worth of interviews that he manages to string together seamlessly, to create a big complicated picture that is disarmingly easy to read.

Ferris is credited with publication in The New Yorker, and it's easy to see why. His prose constantly verges on poetic, and he's remarkably capable of turning science into entertainment. As we visit with Stephen O'Meara, the man with simply remarkable eyes, or John Dobson, the San Francisco monk who invented a whole new class of telescopes and plunked them down in the city streets to delight passers-by with the rings of Saturn. If you are remotely interested in astronomy or in reading about fascinating, slightly odd people, then 'Seeing in the Dark' is likely to reward you with view not only of the universe, but the remarkable humans who gaze upon it.