One of the most frequent questions I hear around this holiday gift-giving season is this: "Which is the best book to buy for someone just getting started in stargazing?"
I wish it were that easy! Unfortunately, there is no one "best" book, any more than there's a "best" car, computer or brand of root beer. Instead, let me suggest that you visit your local library or bookstore, sit on the floor under the astronomy section, and begin flipping through all that captures your interest. That's what I do.
Whether you're an experienced astronomer or just beginning, there are a few classics that should be on the shelves of every stargazer. Perhaps the one I'd recommend more than any other isn't even an astronomy book, but rather an autobiography of one of the great amateur astronomers of the 20th century.
"Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Stargazer" by Leslie C. Peltier, captures the excitement and romance of star-gazing like no other book I've ever read. When folks ask why anyone would take up a hobby such as astronomy, I always point them in the direction of this book. I try to read it once a year or so, just to remind myself why I fell in love with the subject ... and wind up falling in love with it all over again.
Another is a three-volume set titled "Burnham's Celestial Handbook," a remarkable reference work compiled by Robert Burnham Jr. If you've ever pondered the history and cultural influences of the stars and constellations, you will easily probably lose yourself in this wonderful set. In fact, many of the historical tidbits I write for this column I discovered originally in Burnham's rich tome.
For help in locating outlines of the constellations, you might try "The Stars," a classic book by H.A. Rey. In it, Rey takes the "classical" constellations and creates new — and some might say, easier — outlines for beginning stargazers. Keep in mind, of course, that it's often helpful just to make up your own figures among the stars.
If you're interested in some of the unconventional ideas that people believe about the universe around us, check out Philip C. Plait's "Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing 'Hoax'." And, believe me, there's no shortage of these.
To keep up with current astronomical discoveries and other amateur activities around the world, you should certainly look into the two major monthly periodicals. While they both cover the same material, Sky & Telescope is slanted slightly toward the technically oriented amateur, with more information on research projects, telescope building, computer and photographic hardware and software, etc., and Astronomy handles more of the beauty and mystery of the cosmos. Just as with books, I recommend you look over a few issues at your local library or bookstore before subscribing.
And now, as our tiny blue world completes yet another journey around its life-giving star, I'd like to wish each of my readers, fans and friends a very happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, Festivus or whatever gives you joy in this wonderful season. I truly hope that your stars shine ever more brightly in 2016!