The Portable Library

22nd Aug 2016

Portable libraryI am a bibliophile. I love books. Life without books is inconceivable to me. I’ve always been a voracious reader; in fact I can’t remember not being able to read – it’s as if all that is memorable in my life began with reading. I live in a library basically; when I moved to Limpopo from Cape Town it took 40 crates to lug the book there.

It was really tough trying to select the books I wanted to bring along on my trip (I restricted myself to two apple boxes) and still have room for the telescope, all the astronomy paraphernalia, and the camping gear in the car. (I’m not given to panic attacks but I reckon I’d suffer a fatal one if I went somewhere and saw I’d forgotten to bring boxes of books along.)


Uranometria All Sky
Unanometria Field Guide

It’s a no brainer that a bibliophile is probably going to be the type of observer who uses paper atlases out at the telescope rather than the laptop. Way more than any computer programme can, paper atlases bring me the intense excitement of being a traveller adventuring into the most exciting and unknown lands. Just like the dotted line on a map charted an explorer’s passage from one place to another, so the symbols in my Uranometria chart my passage through the heavens.

I can hardly wait to open the atlas up when planning a night’s observing, for opening it up is beginning a new adventure. I have never lost this feeling. Day after day, month after month, year after year, its pages thrill me. (As do the plethora of other astronomy atlases I have in my library, only one of which I brought along in addition to the Uranometria.)

The Deep Sky Field Guide contains an astonishing amount of data useful to the visual observer. I adore massive amounts of data and this is a massive amount of data! It’s a fantastic adjutant for the sky atlas; I can’t use one without the other.


Burnham’s Celestial Handbook – all three volumes

Well, of course…!! What portable library would be complete without the inimitable Mr Burnham? They may be a bit out-dated on the science, but they will never go out of date for the sheer charm of his love of the stars and his enthusiasm for everything astronomical. More than any other astronomy book they have that personal, philosophical, and historical content that make them such a great read. What a trio of books: I can pick up one of them in an idle moment… open it up… and come back to earth hours later.

As an interesting aside: The globular cluster, Djorg 2, appears on a photograph in Volume 3, page 1643, 25.5 mm from the right and 30.2 mm from the top side on the upper photo. This interesting little tidbit was gleaned from –


Star Cluster – Brent Archinal & Steven Hynes

As a star cluster enthusiast, this was an absolute must-bring-along book. It’s everything I like in a book – well-written, incredibly interesting to read (and re-read), well-organised, comprehensive, a wealth of information; invaluable to all star cluster (both open and globular) observers.


Night Sky Observer’s Guides – all three volumes

A treasure trove of objects, efficiently packaged, great sketches and photos (it’s the sketches I like in an observing guide because they depict far more realistically what I can expect to see), detailed observing notes, varied descriptions, practical – about everything you need in an observer’s guide. Volume 3 – the Southern Hemisphere – has great chapters on both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (although it has dozens of globular clusters in the LMC that have since been identified as open clusters, but that’s OK… Brent Archinal’s Star Clusters has very comprehensive LMC info).


Southern Gems – Steve O’Meara
Hidden Treasures – Steve O’Meara

I love his books; such a rich and emotive and imaginative writer. His mastery of the English language, his beautiful sketches, the histories of the objects, their discovery and particularities, his observations, his musings, his imagination… what a read!

In Southern Gems, he wrote that seeing 47 Tuc in a telescope is “…like cracking open a geode and finding it filled with gold dust…” It was worth buying the book for that sentence alone.

As an aside, as a rockhound I have a beautiful amethyst geode from the Mwakambiko Hills in Zambia. The rock is a hunk of gnarled dull black rock cracked open on one side to reveal a geode of dazzling amethyst crystals (whose colours range from dazzling white through every shade of mauve, lilac, violet, and purple to the quintessential amethyst. It’s very much like peering into a globular cluster – the gnarly blackness without and through my magnifying glass, the tiny crystals resolving into little individual stars filled with light, shifting colours and indescribable beauty – and the couple of big crystals revealing mind-boggling complexities of growth, geometric angles and colours. I wonder what our primitive forebears thought when they were wandering along in the veld and stumbled across something this extraordinary?


Double Stars – Sissy Haas
Cambridge Double Star Atlas

A great combo for going after those colourful gems. Sissy Haas’ book is a great little resource, with complete data and thumbnail descriptions for more than two thousand multiple-star systems. The descriptions include the various colours other observers have noted, something which fascinates me when I compare them to the colours I see. And as for the CDSA… I love star hopping and there’s no substitute for it when hopping one’s way to doubles.


The Complete Guide to the Herschel Objects – Mark Bratton

One of my faves! It’s an amazing book: not only is it the definitive reference for the entire Herschel catalogue, but also every time I open it I think what a Herculean task to observe all the Herschel objects (no go to or digital setting circles), keep such detailed notes and then put it all into such a well-organised and readable book. Yikes.

I find his own notes alongside those of Herschel is especially helpful. I love this book, and love browsing it on cloudy nights, visiting all the objects below my northern horizon.


The Herschel 400 Observing Guide – Steve O’Meara

Not at all the archtypal O’Meara guide but I like it because I enjoy his night by night, month by month, short descriptions of what there is to see, the difficulty of the object, a description of the star-hop required in order to bag it, and a smallish picture of the object. A nice companion to Mark Bratton’s book in a different sort of way.


Galaxies and how to observe them – Wolfgang Steinicke & Richard Jakiel

A great addition to the portable library; every library needs a galaxy book and I like this one. For galaxy observing it and the NSOGs complement each other very well. I had a chuckle as I was writing this as in the obligatory “observing blurb”, the authors suggest that driving to a dark site that takes more than 1 hour is not desirable. Hmmm. I thought 16 hours was eminently desirable!


Craters of the Moon – John Moore

I am a dedicated Moon-gazer and have a plethora of Moon books – this atlas with its quality and quantity of images, text and data was the best resource for selenology for the portable library.


Astronomy Delights – Magda Streicher

A charming book written by an extremely experienced South African observer whose love of the stars and everything astronomical is imprinted on every page. Tremendous sketches of objects, beautiful pencil sketches of a number of astronomers, photos, and personal tidbits make it a delight.


Herschel at the Cape – the Diaries and Correspondence of Sir John Herschel, 1934 – 1938

It was published in 1969 by the University of Texas and is out of print, so a lucky find at a second-hand bookstore. Beautiful copy, too; three of the four editors had signed the book (that was a nice surprise) and – it’s wonderful what you find in second-hand books – there was one of the editor’s cards inside it with a note, “To Joy and Neville with love”. (The book doesn’t look as if it was read much, I’m guessing Joy and Neville read it once, stuck the card in the book [where it has remained for 45 years, hard to believe it never fell out], shoved the book into a bookshelf, eventually kicked the bucket, and their kids sent their books off to the second-hand bookstore where – oh joy! – it became my book, card and all!)

What a great read, re-read and re-read. Most enjoyable are his letters to his Aunt Caroline, one of which has a fantastic sketch of the galaxy, Centaurus A (NGC 5128): “… A few evenings ago I lighted on a strange Nebula of which here is a figure! and since I am about it, I shall add a figure of one of the resolvable nebulae in the Greater Magellanic cloud, as below…” (and here he has sketched the Tarantula Nebula.) Imagine Caroline reading that sentence and looking at the sketches.

On Wednesday, October 28, 1835: “… Knocked up a temporary stand for the 7 feet Equatorial telescope – dismantled it & carried it out onto the 1st Sand hills on the flats, there erected it just at Sunset & was rewarded with the 1st glorious sight of Halley’s Comet!!!”

(I was so chuffed when I saw that he, too, expressed enchantment with multiple exclamation marks!!! Take that dreary old grammar bores!!!)

And oh dear, on Nov 1, he showed a number of people Halley’s Comet and, “… They viewed it for the most part with indifference only Eckstein seemed interested.”

And then there is this: “…Made a long nights Sweep, and the night being most superb – the mirror brilliant and the zone swept (147 148 140) the richest perhaps in the heavens – attained the sublime of Astronomy – a sort of ne plus ultra.” Yes, Mr Herschel, we know exactly how you felt.

He really was an utterly charming eccentric… he found the Cape summer sun so astonishingly hot that he liked to cook in the sand and sun, the first thing he cooked being an egg he hard boiled in the sand (and he shared it with his wife and the kids so they could all say they had eaten an egg hard boiled in the African sand!), and the day before recording the beginning of Eta Carinae’s great explosion in 1837, he recorded, “…Cooked a Mutton Chop and Potatoes in the sun and ate it with MBH for Lunch It was thoroughly done and very good…”

Beyond astronomy and experimental solar cooking, he was a dedicated botanist, naturalist, explorer, artist… his diaries are a delight to read.


The Story of the Heavens – Sir Robert Ball, published in 1908

It is in immaculate condition; looks like it was barely read. (I bought it at a second-hand book sale and paid a mere R20 for it; the seller explaining that it’s old and thus not worth much…whereas the latest paperback whodunits sold for twice that.)

Sir Robert Ball was an excellent author; he wrote so fluidly. It is incredibly fascinating to read about the most up-to-date astronomy of 1908. It is filled with E.E. Barnard’s photos and Lord Rosse’s sketches. I can pore over them for hours. Stunning stuff. One plate is especially fascinating – it depicts thirteen ‘nebulae’ observed with Lord Rosse’s great telescope. I’ve scanned it, must figure out where to post it and see if anyone can help identify them. There are a couple of easily recognizable galaxies, but the others have me stumped; I’d love to know what they are – and then hunt them down and see them for myself.


Halley’s Comet in history, published by the British Museum

I had a couple of millimeters to spare in the book crate, so slipped this slim little volume in. It was a very serendipitous find at a second-hand book shop a couple of years ago. Just a couple of nights before I had been watching bits of debris left behind by Halley’s Comet burn up in the atmosphere during the Eta Aquarid meteor shower… and then I found this book: what a delight!

In 1984 a discovery in the British Museum revealed records of Halley’s Comet in 164 and 87 BC on Babylonian tablets – and the deciphered tablets are reproduced in the book (more than half the book). Early Chinese observations are also included, together with parallel records in medieval Europe, and these are compared with the Babylonian sources. Fascinating stuff!

The tantalising fragments of the Babylonian tablets fascinate me – a sentence here, part of a sentence there, a few words here, half a word there, yet you get the clearest picture of the astronomers and what they are recording. (The book also does one the favour of translating the Babylonian names of the stars and constellations so it makes sense, although getting my head around angular distances expressed in cubits and fingers was a bit of a mind-bender.)

Endless details of local weather conditions; I must say you can’t help but feel for the poor observers on the nights they recorded… “because of clouds I did not watch…” And they moaned like hell about the wind. It clearly blew like the clappers most nights! Oddest of all, there are also occasional items of political history and intrigue, most often presented as rumour, “It was heard that…”

What a wonderful hobby astronomy is! You can read a few broken fragments of some unknown Babylonian astronomer’s log book, recorded over two thousand years ago and you are in tune with what he’s seeing and feeling, as if he wrote it yesterday.


Mr Olcott’s Skies – Thomas Watson

I slipped this little volume in for a re-read because it did what good books ought to do – it resonated with me and set me thinking. Although it is the story of Thomas’ youthful astronomy obsession (always a captivating topic), it charts the convoluted road he took to become the man that he is – a writer and amateur astronomer. His lifetime journey to the stars, aided by the delightful W.T. Olcott’s Field Book of the Skies, was enchanting, but its introspection reminds one that you need to look back the way you’ve come in order to understand where you are and who you are, and, more importantly, where you’re still going. A good introspective re-read for this journey to the Kalahari desert and the stars above.


A Spectroscopic Atlas of Bright Stars, A Pocket Field Guide – Jack Martin

Pretty much a beginner’s guide, but apart from being able to quickly check out the spectrograms of a good number of stars, it also is a really great aid when enthusiasts come to look at the stars… everyone is amazed to see rainbows in the dark and a surprising number want to know what the dark lines are… so out comes the easy little book.


The Cloud Book – Richard Hamblyn

This is a book choice that would likely have me flamed clean off any astronomy forum… but hey, I find clouds fascinating, too (during the day, that is). There are so many different types, shapes, forms and goings-on up there that a while ago I bought myself this cloud book so that I could identify them.

It’s also a case of (as Sun Tzu exhorts), know your enemy! Although of course, it doesn’t help in the least when I look up at a chaotic sky full of the enemy in the late afternoon and my book tells me I’m looking at Altocumulus stratiformis duplicatus. Arrrrgh, no, not Altocumulus stratiformis duplicatus … the clouds I want to be seeing are those Magellanic ones.
And not a book but…


Herschel’s Symphonies: London Mozart Players, Matthias Bamert (Conductor)

It really is a transcendent experience to listen to the delightful strains of his symphonies while looking at the objects he discovered… out in the dark, under a canopy of stars.