Caveat Emptor!

 

August 30 2019

As you may gather, I’ve taken a keen, active interest in testing out binoculars with an aim to providing my readers with good quality products that won’t break the bank. As part of that process, I needed a few entry-level models to compare and contrast them with other products purporting to provide better optical quality. In one transaction, I purchased an Eyeskey labelled 8 x 32 roof prism binocular on August 5 2019 from eBay. It was brand new and set me back £37.79, taking about two weeks to ship directly from China to my home in Scotland.

Here is a photo of what I received:

The Eyeskey Package.

Here is a close-up photo of the Eyeskey binocular; the reader will note the texturing of the armoring and distinctive tripod adaptor cover

The Eyeskey 8 x 32 roof prism binocular.

Here is what it looks like from the ocular end:

Note the plain 8 x 32 & Bak4 Prism labelling on the focus wheel.

And here is a photo of the tethered rubber objective lens covers as well as the thumb indentations on the underside of the binocular:

Note the tethered rubber objective covers and thumb indentations on the Eyeskey.

After inspecting the Eyeskey binocular and its accessories, I recalled another binocular, marketed by a company called Avalonoptics.co.uk, which I had come across in a previous internet search.

Here is Avalon’s 8 x 32 Mini HD binoculars( all images taken from their website):

Avalon 8×32 Mini HD Binoculars BLACK

Here is an image of the entire package:

Here is an image of the writing on the focusing wheel:

Note the thumb indentations on the under side of the barrels on the Avalon:

And here is an image of the tethered objective covers on the Avalon:

 

Next, I took a look at the specifications of both models.

You can view the Avalon specs here

And here are the Eyskey specs( source eBay):

8561-8X32_01

Both claim to be fully multicoated, are nitogen filled and fog proof, but there is no mention of a phase coating on either model.

There is a few differences in the quoted specifications. The advertised field of view is 6.78 degrees for the Eyeskey and 6.9 degrees for the Avalon model; quite close. Eye relief is quoted as 18mm for the Eyeskey and 15mm for the Avalon, but these figures can often be incorrect or at least misleading(as I will explain in another up-and-coming binocular review). The Eyeskey has an advertised weight of 18.3 oz = 519 grams, whereas the Avalon has a quoted weight of 416 grams.

Weight can also be misleading though, as it can vary according to whether you include the lens covers and strap etc.

The boxes look pretty similar with just different logos on them, same goes for the neck strap and generic instruction sheet.

Now for the price comparison:

Eyeskey 8 x 32: £37.79

Avalon 8 x 32 Mini HD: £119(recently discounted 20% from £149)

Finally, have a look at this youtube presentation of the said Avalon Mini HD binocular here.

Is the Eyskey 8 x 32 model worth the £37.79?

I suppose for what you get it’s a bargain.

But what about the Avalon?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide!

Caveat Emptor!

 

Update: September 16 2020

I have been monitoring a website that sells Avalon binoculars and noted a number of irregularities that continue to concern me. If you click on this link, you’ll see a model called the Avalon Titan ED 10 x 42. If you scroll through the marketing blurb and the specifications of the binocular, its main feature is ED glass. But there is no mention of phase coatings, type of multi-coating, or dielectric coatings, the material out of which the chassis is constructed etc which I would expect given the very high price of the binocular; a whopping £1099 UK! You will also note that the packaging looks very similar to the Eyeskey model featured above, with a generic (one page) instruction sheet. To say the least, I would have expected far more technical information about such an expensive binocular, especially when it retails for more than top branded models from Zeiss and Leica, for example.

I dispatched an email to the said company a week ago, where I asked why the Titan model(weighing a whopping 1.3 kilos) was so much more expensive than their other models given the very sparse information provided on the website. I received no response. I sent another email to the company yesterday and it too has fallen on deaf ears!

 

The company has also produced a number of dodgy youtube videos  and have even used a ‘mathematical ecologist’ ( ooooh) to flog their gear.

The same website sells Zeiss Terra ED binoculars at greatly marked up prices. For example, the Terra ED pocket ( 8x 25) glass is on sale for £489 UK in comparison to nearly all other retailers( ~£250).

Needless to say I am deeply suspicious of this company and would continue to caution customers to tread carefully in order to avoid disappointment.

 

 

Neil English debunks many telescopic myths in his new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.

 

De Fideli.

 

Product Review: Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32.

The Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32.

Product: Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32

Country of Origin: Portugal

Weight: 630g

Chassis: Rubber armoured Magnesium

Eye Relief: 17mm

Exit Pupil: 4mm

Dioptre Range: +/- 5 D

Field of View(Published): 124m@1000m (7.07 angular degrees)

ED Glass: Unknown

Eye Cups: Removable, twist-up in 5 locking steps

Light Transmission: 90%(published)

Close Focus: 0.95m(measured)

Waterproof: Yes to 4 metres depth

Nitrogen Purged: Yes

Coatings: Fully multi-coated, P40 phase coatings, HDC coatings, hydrophobic & dirt repellent coatings applied to outer lenses.

Tripod Adaptable: No

Dimensions: W/H : 11.7 x 13 cm

Warranty: 10 years

Supplied Accessories: Leica padded strap, rain guard, ocular lens caps, lens cleaning cloth, non-padded neoprene carry bag, instruction manual, warranty &  test certificate.

Price: £700-£750(UK)/$899 USD

Preamble

Review A

Review B

Review C

Review D

Review E

 

A work begun September 1 2020.

 

Leica (formerly Leitz) is a name familiar to all camera and binocular enthusiasts. For over a century, this German based company has brought to market state-of-the-art products for discerning outdoor enthusiasts, combining high quality optics with award-winning mechanics, creating instruments that are not only highly durable but have great aesthetic qualities that make them a delight to hold in the hand and to just look at.

The Trinovid line of binoculars by Leica has long been considered the company’s ‘heritage’ brand. First produced in the late 1950s, the Trinovids were so named because of the three features – or Tri Novitäten in the German tongue – which combine state-of-the-art optics, true internal focusing and excellent ergonomics in one tidy package. If you think the latest incarnation from Swarovski – the NL Pure’s – have a wide field of view of at 159m @ 1000m, it pays to remember that Leica was churning out Trinovids with much larger true fields – up to 170m@1000m by the mid-1960s. If that ain’t prestigious enough, a Leica Trinovid – really a highly specialised 10 x 40 monocular nicknamed the “Eye of Apollo” – accompanied the US astronauts on their epochal sojourn to the lunar surface in the northern summer of 1969.

The Trinovid remained Leica’s flagship binocular until the introduction of their Ultravid line in the mid noughties, but were continued as a lower cost alternative until Leica ceased production of the Trinovids altogether in 2015, much to the chagrin of many Leica fans. So that was the end of a line of binoculars that served the outdoor enthusiast perfectly for well over half a century right?

Thankfully, no!

In 2016, the company announced a new line of Trinovids, revamped with an ‘HD’ moniker. As usual, the new Trinovid HDs – all made in Leica’s factory in Portugal – were first launched in the perennially popular 8x and 10 x 42 incarnations, but a year later Leica added two smaller glasses to the same family – the 8x and 10 x 32. This review will take a close look at the 8 x 32 model. Leica specifically marketed the new Trinovid HD line as “entry-level premium class,” whatever that means.

In order to make this review as objective as possible, I would like to compare and contrast it with the performance of two other 8 x 32 models; the Celestron Trailseeker and the Viking Optical Merlin ED 8x 32, shown below;

Two other good 8x 32 models used to test alongside the Leica Trinovid HD 8x 32; The Celestron Trailseeker(top) and the Viking Merlin ED(bottom).

These models were chosen for a number of reasons; both have fully multi-coated optics, dielectric and phase corrected roof prisms, while the Merlin has two ED elements in its objective for improved colour correction. These models retail at considerably lower prices than the Leica however – the Trailseeker (recently discontinued) at ~£150 and the Merlin at ~ £239. So, testing these units along side the much higher priced Leica would serve as a good reality check in terms of both optics and ergonomics, and will thus provide the reader with a much better overall indicator as to whether or not the Leica Trinovid HD is worth its much heftier price tag.

First Impressions & Ergonomics

The Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 was purchased brand-new from an authorised UK Leica dealer – The Birder’s Store – for a good price; £699, which included free expedited special delivery to my door. I was actually struck by the number of stores that advertised the instrument on their websites, only to find, upon further enquiry,  that many did not have it in stock.

Now what do the townies call that again?

Oh yes; vapour ware.

This was not the case with the Birder’s Store however, the staff of which were friendly and professional throughout, and were able to process my order the day before it arrived here.

The instrument came in the standard padded grey Leica box, complete with neoprene carry case, a lens cloth, padded neck strap with the Leica logo, rain guard, tethered objective lens covers, instruction manual, test certificate and warranty card. I was immediately struck by the beautiful, solid build quality of the instrument, with its magnesium chassis and thick, flat black rubber armouring. The red Leica logo made for a nice aesthetic touch embedded at the end of the right barrel of the instrument. Built like a proverbial tank, the large central focus wheel moved with silky smoothness, taking just over two full revolutions from one extreme of its travel to the other. This extra long focus travel is unusual in a binocular of these specifications but is required for the instrument’s amazing close focusing distance of under 1 metre – the closest I have personally encountered by quite a considerable margin, with the exception of the marvellous Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21, with its unrivalled 0.5 metre minimum focus.

I was very much looking forward to examining the eye cups on this Leica, which turned out to be every bit as good as I had hoped! They are beautifully engineered with five positions from fully extended to fully retracted, and all locked into their respective positions with a loud and reassuring ‘click’ sound. Supremely comfortable, they are ‘cushioned’ in a lovely soft rubber that sanctions prolonged glassing in the field  They remain in place with a rigidity(read rock solid) that I had come to expect from this company owing to my previous pleasant experiences with its smaller sibling – the Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20  pocket glass. Sporting a very generous eye relief of 17mm, this is one binocular that eye glass wearers will never struggle to see the full field with! That’s good news going forward, as I don’t know if I will eventually(maybe a few decades hence when I’m in my 70’s lol) have to observe with my eye glasses on all the time.  The eye cups are also removable should I wish to give them a thorough clean.

The eye cups on the Trinovid HD are made to a standard I would expect from a world class company like Leica.

I normally wouldn’t even comment about the rain guards and tethered objective covers  – like who really cares lol? – but in this case I have to say that they were of unusually high quality- a first for a premium manufacturer like this. The rain guard is very snugly fitting – indeed it takes a bit of effort to prize it off if you’re in a hurry. But I find that it affords that little bit more protection to the eye pieces during rough handling, especially if dust, dirt and sand etc are prevalent. This is the case irrespective of whether or not the eye cups are extended or fully retracted.

Same goes for the objective lens covers too. Unlike most others which are far too loose, these stay on snugly helping to protect the instrument.

It’s just a pity I’ll never use them!

Unlike the older Trinovids and the current Ultravid models, the new Trinovid HDs have their dioptre setting placed under the right ocular lens, as is common with the vast majority of binoculars you’re likely to come across. It has a prominent red line which one can use to mark the optimal setting for your right eye but is not lockable unlike that found on the Ultravid models. Many of the reviewers cited above view this as a retrograde step, but personally, I have always felt that having a lockable dioptre is a bit of a gimmick; more an over-engineered ‘gee whizz’ solution than anything else and not really worth the extra cost incurred in acquiring a model with one installed. Other folk may have different opinions on this and that’s OK. But there are other practical reasons why I prefer to have a dioptre setting that can be adjusted on the fly. Knowing my own physiology, I have come to learn that my eye sight can change ever so slightly if I glass in the early morning after resting for many hours, or after staring at a computer screen for a long period of time. I also notice small changes if I’m tired. And all of these states often have me reaching for the dioptre ring to micro-adjust the focus in my right eye during critical glassing moments when I require the very finest images the binocular is likely to  provide. The adjustments, though very slight, are nonetheless real, and so having a well-made but conventional dioptre ring that I don’t have to adjust by pulling on the focus wheel and fiddling with a dial is actually a distinct advantage in my books.

The Leica Trinovid HD has a simple, right eye dioptre that does exactly what it says on the tin.

All of this may seem a bit new to many readers, but I can assure you I am not alone in noticing this in prolonged field use.

My first look through the Trinovid greatly impressed me; I was immediately taken by its bright, sharp and colourful images of the creation. Indeed, that first look convinced me that I had a first-rate optic in my hands, as I will elaborate on shortly. So, without further ado, let’s have a look at the results my tests revealed about this binocular in comparison to the other models cited above.

Tests for Light Leaks and Glare

Setting up my iphone torch at its brightest setting, I dimmed the lights in my living room and aimed the binocular into the intensely bright light beam just a few metres away, studying the image for internal reflections, diffraction spikes, diffused light etc.The Trinovid produced an excellent result, as I had anticipated. No binocular on God’s earth can pass this test with 100 per cent success, but any reflections it possessed were very very minor and strongly subdued. It was fully the equal of my smaller Trinovid in this regard,  and also the Viking Merlin ED, but a notch up from the Celestron Trailseeker. If the latter scored an 8.5 out of 10, both the Leica Trinovid HD and the Merlin were awarded a score of 10 out of 10. They both displayed a very weak diffraction spike which I did not find bothersome. This is in sharp contradistinction to that reported on the larger 10 x 42 model reviewed by the gentleman in Review C showcased above.

When pointed at a a bright sodium street lamp at night showed excellent results for all three binoculars. No annoying internal reflections and no sign of a diffraction spike – a result I had anticipated owing to the lamp’s less intense brightness. The Leica Trinovid HD will make an excellent binocular to study night time scenes such as city scapes from a lofty vantage, a bright full Moon, or a distant harbour lit up at night.

The Leica Trinovid HD 8x 32 shows little or no light leaks around the ocular lenses (left hand ocular).

And a right ocular.

All binoculars, no matter how well made, suffer from some degree of veiling glare while glassing under an open sky in broad daylight. I am happy to report that the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 exhibited the lowest amount of this phenomenon I have personally experienced. It was simply far less of a problem than that witnessed in either the Celestron Trailseeker and Viking Merlin glass when viewing under the same bright, overcast sky, and phenomenally better than the little Leica 8 x 20(which shows very strong veiling glare owing in part to its exposed objective lenses). This was the case even though the objectives on the Trinovid HD were not as deeply recessed as on the Merlin binocular( a full 10mm), so must have been attributed to much closer attention to proper baffling of the overhead light. And while much of this veiling glare can be all but removed by shading the glass from above with an out-stretched hand, it is nice to be able to glass without having to resort to such antics except in the most demanding conditions. Kudos to Leica for addressing this niggling and pervasive problem!

Glassing Tests in a Summer Garden

Glassing some late flowering Cosmos flowers in my back garden in bright sunlight was enough to show off the quality of the images in this new Leica glass. The glass is supremely sharp across the vast majority of the field, with only a little peripheral softness near the field stop. Like all the roof prism binoculars I have had the pleasure of using, lateral(horizontal) field correction is noticeably better than when the same image is examined by moving a target from the bottom to the top of the field (vertical panning). This has hardly been mentioned in the online literature so far as I know.

The Leica image has a sparkle to it that was simply missing in the Trailseeker and Merlin, with noticeably better contrast than either of the test binoculars. Reds and yellows are especially enhanced to my eyes. It was almost as if someone had peeled away a thin veil allowing my eyes to see those last fine details that had remained more elusive in the both the Merlin and the Trailseeker. I could also see that the noticeably wider fields on the latter glasses(136m@1000m) were significantly softer in the outer 30 per cent of the field, indicating that the Leica had a much larger sweet spot. Glassing the top of a telephone pole against a bright overcast sky revealed some colour fringing(chromatic aberration(CA)) in the Leica Trinovid HD. Indeed, in the same tests, it was not present in the Merlin ED and actually less prevalent in the Celestron Trailseeker too! This is in agreement with all of the lengthy reviews cited at the beginning of this blog, but you will still note their comments as stating that the “images are excellent(or very good) despite having noticeable CA. This last point deserves further comment.

So what’s going here? According to Leica USA’s Jeff Bouton, the new Trinovid HDs do indeed employ some kind of ED glass but they are not as well corrected in this capacity in comparison to their more expensive Ultravid line. That said, the image in the 8 x 32 Trinovid HD has a quality about it that places it just ahead of the Merlin glass  within its sweet spot, which exhibits better control of CA. I attribute a large part of this to the Leica’s exceptional control of glare which in turn delivers higher contrast images to the more ‘apochromatic’ Merlin. It just goes to show, once again, that a binocular need not exhibit overly aggressive control of secondary spectrum to deliver a gob-smackingly good image. To my mind, the Leica Trinovid HDs offer a very convincing ‘proof of concept’ in this regard. And besides, I rather like to see a little in some images as I have been fond of telling my readers over the years! Having said all of this, I have noticed that the degree of fringing in difficult observing settings is sensitive to eye placement. Paying a little more attention to squaring your eyes in the 4mm exit pupil of these small binoculars will all but eliminate it.

Stop Press: The Leica Trinovid HD is a decidedly achromatic binocular!

Low Light Tests

The Leica Trinovid HD boasts an excellent transmittivity of 90 per cent, placing it just a few percentage points behind the very best binoculars currently available. But how would it fare against the much more economically priced Trailseeker and Merlin binoculars in low light conditions, such as those experienced at dawn or dusk?  Remembering that all three glasses sport fully multi-coated optics, phase corrected prisms with high reflectivity dielectric coatings, I performed some tests on tree branches some 50 yards distant after the Sun had set in early August skies. The results were not surprising to me, given what I had already learned from a number of other tests carried out earlier in the year; there was very little difference in perceived image brightness between all the instruments, though I did give the nod to both the Merlin and the Leica HD over the Trailseeker, but only just. What this tells me is that light transmission is very efficient in these mid-tier binoculars. I would be confident enough to bet that they transmit 85%+ of the light they collect and that’s very good news for the budget conscious consumer. How times have changed from only a short few years ago! What is more, the claim that ED glass results in brighter images was not really in evidence in these tests either, contradicting the claim by the gentleman who conducted Review A above.

Further Impressions in Field Use

The Trinovid HD 8 x 32 has an excellent depth of field. Anything beyond about 50 yards remains in good focus, only requiring a slight tweak of the focus wheel to obtain ultimate sharpness. But it is its remarkable close focus – just 0.95m as I measured it – that really distinguishes it from its competitors including the company’s more expensive Ultravid and Noctivid lines. Viewing objects at close focus – rocks, flowers, insects – has brought many joyful experiences, although I have to switch to ‘monocular mode’ to get the most comfortable views at these short distances.

I measured the field of view under the stars, where I was able to hold Alkaid and Mizar & Alcor in the Plough asterism  in the same field of view with a little bit of room to spare. Since these stars are ~6.7 angular degrees apart, I felt the quoted 7.1 degree field was quite accurate.

I realise that many binocular enthusiasts will be a little alarmed by the smaller field of view offered up by the Trinovid HD. Most 8 x 32 models have fields approaching 8 angular degrees or even a little higher, but this was a very deliberate choice in my case. I mean, if I wanted a wider field of view, I could have acquired the Zeiss Conquest or the Swarovski CL companion for about the same price I paid for the Leica glass. But I have discovered that I’m more interested in vignettes where I don’t have to resort to rolling my eyes around to take in the entire field rather than broader vistas. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that smaller fields are more conducive to study than overly large ones! I absolutely love the wonderful sharp field stops on the Trinovid and the way it frames each binocular scene I wish to image. I also understand from past experiences with instruments like the Nikon Prostaff 7s 8 x 30, which has an excellent 6.5 degree field, that optical engineers can deliver better edge to edge sharpness by cutting down the field of view. I think the folk at Leica are fully aware of this trick, opting for bigger sweet spots within a smaller field of view, rather than a larger, more conservative field of view but with the loss of critical definition as one moves from the centre to the edge of the field. Truth be told, a seven degree field is more than ample for virtually every scenario I’m likely to find myself in, and in field use I don’t ever get the feeling that the image is ‘restricted’ or ‘tunnelled.’

The Leica Trinovid HD has special coatings applied to the outer lenses which repel dirt, oil and water. Though some Leica-run websites give the impression that this coating is their patented AquaDura, I felt it best to contact the Leica Sports Optics team directly for clarification on this matter, and here is how they replied:

The lenses of all Leica Trinovid binoculars feature an extremely effective, water-resistant and dirt-repellent coating. It is a similar style of hydrophobic coating in that it doesn’t allow water to pool on the lens should you be using them in the rain and it also makes cleaning them easier as fingerprints and dirt along with water can’t cling to the surface. The actual “Aqua Dura” coatings are reserved for our Ultravid HD+ and Noctivid ranges only.

Fortunately, this is easy to test at home. I set up the Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32(which does not have such coatings) alongside the Trinovid glass. Both these instruments have the same ocular lens size, so I breathed heavily on them, creating a ‘fog.’ Next I watched both to see which one dispersed that fog more quickly. The easy winner was the Leica. I would estimate that it takes about three times longer to disperse on the uncoated Celestron. This will prove to be very useful in the colder and damper months of the year, where exterior fogging is a common though inadvertent problem.

The Choice of 8 x 32 versus 8 x 42

For less than £100 more, I could have acquired the 8 x 42 Trinovid HD, but I’m a convert to 8 x 32, having enjoyed the larger format glass for quite a while. The main reasons are compactness and reduced weight. I do a lot of glassing; maybe a hour on work days and several hours at the weekends and holidays. The 8 x 42’s I’ve used can be tiresome hanging around your neck after prolonged field use. Indeed, sometimes they felt more like bricks than binoculars. The 8 x 32 format gives up very little to their 42mm equivalents in the vast majority of applications. A high-efficiency 32mm glass  like this works well in strong sunlight and dull overcast days. It also performs adequately under a forest canopy, where there is restricted sunlight. Only at dawn and dusk is a good 42mm binocular a better option, but as I said before, I don’t do a lot of glassing at these times. A 32mm is no slouch for star gazing either, as I shall explain a little later. The smaller frame of the 8 x 32 is also more conducive to stashing away in a rucksack or pocket.

Going from a 5.4mm exit pupil on the 8 x 42 to just 4mm on the 8 x 32 wasn’t an issue for me either, as I discovered using both the Celestron and Merlin binoculars. The Trinovid HD 8 x 32 is supremely easy on my eyes and I don’t have any problems with blackouts or kidney beaning. Furthermore, I happen to think that the smaller exit pupil on the 8 x 32 format produces an image that is that little bit sharper than the larger 8 x 42 owing to the reduced aberrations inherent to design of the human eye. Opinion on this matter will undoubtedly vary and there is no absolute right or wrong answer. You see, it’s all about personal taste!

Why not the Ultravid or Noctivid?

As I alluded to earlier, Leica offer higher priced models with allegedly slightly better optics, light transmission and more refined mechanical features, such as a lockable dioptre that I commented on previously. The Noctivid is not available in a 32mm format, so that eliminated it as an option, but it is offered in the Ultravid HD line. Having said that, many experienced commentators will admit that you’re getting 95 per cent of the performance of the Ultravid HD binocular in the Trinovid optic, and I happen to agree with that assessment having average, though well-trained eyesight.  I doubt that I would be able to tell much of a difference between these glasses, with gains of just a couple of percent in light transmission and slightly better edge of field performance(the Trinovid shows mild pincushion distortion at the very edge of the field), but I certainly would notice the big gaping hole in my wallet. I was struck by the write up made by the gentleman in Review B above, who commented that although he had intended to acquire the Ultravid HD 8 x 32 that day in the Leica store, he couldn’t tell the difference between it and the Trinovid HD, and ended up saving himself a lot of cash! I’m not a sucker for the law of diminishing returns, so for me, the Ultravid HD is overkill and over priced. I don’t need it nor desire it. I got what I paid for and I’m satisfied!

And last, but by no means least, I wanted a top-tier binocular with solid history behind it and only the Trinovid from Leica really has this. Newer, fancier models come and go all the time, of course, but the Trinovid goes back to an era before I was born and there is a satisfaction in owning an instrument that carries on that tradition.

Your mileage may vary.

 

Ad Astra

Though you can fruitfully engage with the night sky with any binocular, large or small, I find a 30mm aperture about the minimum that will yield views that will keep you engaged for long periods of time. And going from 30 to 32 mm results in a noticeable (~14 per cent) increase in light gathering power. With the light from the city of Glasgow some 25 miles to the south having diminished during the lockdowns, the sky is noticeably darker to my eyes and more majestic with it.  The Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 was my instrument of choice to re-explore a truly dark sky after the summer twilight had come and gone. In mid-August, with no Moon in the sky, I set up a comfortable recliner in my back garden, and lying on my back, I explored the starry heaven down to perhaps the 9th magnitude of glory. The stars appear as beautiful, tiny pinpoints and their colours true and rich. I’ve even watched falling stars streak across the field during the Perseid meteor shower in the second week of August, and even witnessed a few brilliant fireballs with this wonderful, small glass.

I’m using my binoculars more and more now to escape the drudgery wrought by this scamdemic and the escalating evil, violence and depravity we’re constantly bombarded with on the air waves. You could say that the sky and the great outdoors have become my new telly. To me the stars are like old friends that come and go as the seasons change and I have enjoyed observing all manner of deep sky objects with this little instrument – the comely Pleiads and the Hyades in the wee small hours of the morning, the Coathanger asterism, the Engagement Ring around Polaris, the majestic Double Cluster and brilliant stellar associations such as Melotte 20 in Perseus. Later in the night, Auriga begins to dominate the eastern sky and all three of its Messier open clusters can be framed within the binocular field. Scanning the Milky Way through Cygnus, I usually pause to soak up the especially rich star fields around Sadr and Deneb, before panning onwards into Cassiopeia further east. The heavens surely declare the glory of God!

I have also enjoyed gazing at the Moon growing ever brighter as the days of August proceeded, its size appearing larger owing to its proximity to the horizon. The Leica binocular serves up tack sharp images of the lunar regolith, set against a jet black sky and remaining pleasingly coherent even at the edge of the field. Placing a bright Gibbous Moon just outside the field stop shows that this binocular is superior to the other models in suppressing stray, off-axis light. And when the rain clouds move in from off the Atlantic, racing across the Moon’s silvery countenance, they create painfully beautiful light shows that are rich in colour. In short the Leica is a wonderful companion whether it be day or night. I have even made some makeshift white light solar filters to fit over the instrument’s objective lenses in order to keep an eye on the Sun. Alas, it appears to be entering what astronomers call a grand solar minimum, which does not bode well if historical archives are anything to go by. Is God saying something here too?

Maybees aye, maybees naw.

A Favourite Birding Spot

Culcreuch Pond, looking east toward the Fintry Hills.

In the last twelve months, I have taken up bird watching as another hobby; something I never thought I would find myself doing if I’m being honest. But by and large, the human world has become such a dark place to me that nature is the only refuge I have left. At least she still obeys her Creator lol. I’m very fortunate to live in a place where I can access the wet and the wild, and observe her perfect regularities with all her wonders and beauty. Having a good binocular makes this an especially joyful experience.

Just a half mile from my home is Culcreuch Pond, where I have spent a few minutes on most dry days glassing a pair of Mute Swans and their new family of six cygnets. I have watched them grow from tiny hatchlings to strong and healthy juveniles. The bright, dry spring and warm, wet summer has generated plenty of pond vegetation for them to thrive on. On many days, the adults see me observing them from the banks and begin to swim their way towards me, the cygnets following their parents gracefully in a wonderful flotilla. And they get real close too; often within a few metres of where I’m standing. The youngsters make loud whistle sounds as they approach in search of an easy meal but I have always resisted feeding them. I guess other folk do throw them food, explaining why they cross the pond to see me. To the casual onlooker, they all appear more or less identical, but I have come to know them so well that I can identify unique markers on their body that helps me to distinguish them.

The pond is also a good place to observe all manner of duck, Coots and even the odd Grey Heron lurking in the reedy shallows. Unlike the swans, Herons are far more leary of humans and getting closer than a few tens of metres has proven all but impossible for me. Still, the Leica glass allows me to make up for this distancing and I have observed these magnificent birds as they patiently patrol the shores for approaching fish.

Looking eastward beyond the pond, the hills soar 1,000 feet or so above the valley and I can often observe majestic raptors – mostly Buzzards but also the odd Peregrine Falcon gliding effortlessly on the warm summer thermals. Much of the lower lying parts of the hills are covered by deciduous trees and bracken which change their colours as the seasons progress. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to glassing their beautiful autumnal shades as September gives way to October.

Summary & Conclusions

Worth saving for.

I commend the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 to the enthusiastic naturalist, birder or casual star gazer. It does exactly what it says on the tin and its robust – indeed slightly overbuilt – construction will appeal to those who value performance over bling. It has a classical look and feel about it that is as good to look through as it is to look at. It is durable, water proof to 4 metres depth, and can be relied upon in all weathers. It yields wonderful, bright and tack sharp images of the creation that will delight anyone who looks through it.  Like any other product from the modern world, the Leica Trinovid does have a couple of things that niggle me. For one thing, the silly looking neoprene case does not befit an optic of this quality in my opinion. Nor do I really like the ‘HD’ moniker associated with its name. What does that signify? It’s certainly not a scientific term! Does that mean there will be an HD plus in the future, just like the evolution(don’t we really mean intelligent design?) of the Ultravid model?

If so, I’m not for chasing the wind. But I guess some folk will never be content.

For sure, the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 is an expensive instrument by almost anyone’s standards, but I feel its cost is justified in this case, especially if you intend to use it as frequently as I plan to, by day and by night.

 

Highly recommended!

 

Neil English is the author of many books in amateur and professional astronomy.  He prides himself in sorting the bling from the bread. You can support his ongoing work by purchasing one of his books or by making a small personal donation. Thanks for reading!

 

De Fideli.

Book Review: “Dominion” by Tom Holland

The Christian influence on Western Civilisation will never be erased.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland

Little Brown 2019

(594 pages, Hardcover $20.79)

 

 

As I sat down to collect my thoughts for the review of the distinguished British historian and author, Tom Holland’s latest book, Dominion- How the Christian Revolution remade the World,  we are in lockdown, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the planet. Deprived of our usual liberties to roam where we will, humanity had risen above the drudgery of government imposed captivity, and shown its better side – if only for a while – helping those who are vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, the poor and the destitute, supporting our health care workers on the front line, raising countless millions of dollars for struggling charities, as well as lifting the spirits of families around the world with songs, stories, games and jests.

The irony of this predicament was not lost on me as I finished the final chapters of Holland’s latest tour de force. The thesis of Dominion is that, despite the west’s departure from Judeo-Christian values upheld for centuries and millennia, and though we largely live in a post-truth society more concerned with feelings than facts, the Christian message still casts a long shadow over the shared values of our contemporary, secular, civilisation. Acts of charity, selflessness, compassion and sacrifice – all of which are deeply anchored in the gospels of the New Testament- were abundantly on display in our societies during this time of crisis.

Drawing on 25 centuries of human civilisation, Holland calls upon a rich depository of ancient, medieval and modern history to drive his point home. Beginning with the Jews, who were the first people to receive instruction from the Creator God of the Bible, Holland contrasts the strict monotheism of Judaism to the polytheism of the surrounding nations. In addition, unlike the idols of silver, gold and fine polished stone used to characterise the gods of other nations, the Biblical God first revealed to the patriarchs was not to be worshipped in like manner. Drawing on the moral laws preserved in the Torah, Holland explores the implications of the Ten Commandments, the sabbath and laws establishing proper sexual relations in this ancient people. These laws and precepts, Holland convincingly argues, though resisted by the Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, gradually became written on the hearts of what we might call western civilisation in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman world.

The singular life of Christ – an itinerant preacher and healer born and raised in the Roman-occupied territories of Palestine, and subjected to a horrific execution on a Roman Cross – Holland argues, set in motion the greatest revolution in human cultural history the world has ever seen. Indeed, Holland goes so far as to suggest that the ideas conveyed in the New Testament effectively detonated the cumulative wisdom of the ancient world. We are not the benefactors of Greek and Roman civilisation, as many historians have asserted, but of Christendom.

Accordingly, Holland lays out the evidence for this startling conclusion, exploring how the early Christians followed the example of their Lord and Savior through great acts of charity, caring for the sick, the orphaned, the poor and the weak, not to mention heroic acts of martyrdom that shocked and horrified the pagans who lived alongside them. Surviving waves of persecution under tyrannical Roman Emperors, the blood of its martyrs sowed the seed of evangelism in the hearts and minds of both slave and free for the cause of Christ. And instead of stamping the new religion out, such heroism only served to swell its ranks across all tiers of society, from the mega-rich to the abject poor.

After Constantine the Great  granted his imprimatur to the Christian religion in the 4th century AD, a golden age of Christian literature blossomed in its wake, including many of the writings of the early Church Fathers – Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, in the western tradition, and Basil of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria and John Chrysostom in the eastern tradition. And after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west in the late 5th century AD, Christian ecclesia become synonymous with centres of learning. On the precipice of the known world, Christian monasteries preserved the knowledge passed down from classical antiquity and would eventually become the seedbeds for the establishment of the first university towns such as Padua, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge and Madrid, to name but a few.

Holland explores the long ascent of what would emerge to be the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which came nearest to making the Christian religion truly catholic, or universal, but does not shy away from the problems within the Roman See which eventually led to its greatest schism; the Reformation and Protestantism. Holland displays a nuanced understanding of how key individuals of the Reformation such as Martin Luther, fanned the flames of antisemitism by equating Jews with vermin and calling for their extirpation for the rejection and murder of the true Messiah. How could Luther, who was in lockstep with the beating heart of so many ordinary people, turn out to be a hater of the original People of the Book? Are not all human beings made in the image of God? Whatever the reasons, antisemitism remained alive and well in the centuries that followed, as Holland explores in discussing the persecution of Jews by the Spanish Church throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, and culminating with the Nazi regime which ordered the extirpation of millions of Jews in the years leading up to and throughout World War II.

But antisemitism was just one aberration that emerged from what Holland couches more generally as muddled theology. The same could be said to have occurred with the problem of slavery and racism in general. Holland recounts stories about folk who could look you straight in the eye and tell you that their Bible – in both the Old and New Testaments – condoned slavery in its various forms. And yet, while it’s easy to take a few Biblical verses out of context to justify almost anything, most references to bondservants in the Old Testament do not have the same meanings we ascribe to slavery in our own society. Evidence of this is clear enough in Exodus 23:9 when the Lord warns the people of Israel not to oppress the ‘alien’ and the ‘foreigner’ in the land, and that to remember that they too were once under bondage. Furthermore, St. Paul boldly proclaimed that there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek – all are one in Christ Jesus. It was with such convictions that prominent Christians such as William Wilberforce and others -curiously not mentioned by Holland – who provided the abolitionists with the political power to end slavery, first across the British Empire, and later in the New World,  especially through the monumental efforts of Abraham Lincoln in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The author revisits racism later in the book in his discussion of the late Nelson Mandela and the thorny issue of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa.

Holland also explores the radical effects of science on the Christian faith, particularly the works of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s dangerous ideas gave intellectuals who either hated or held the Christian worldview in contempt – Aldous Huxley, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Andrew Carnegie and Adolf Hitler – plenty of ammunition to show that blind, impersonal and implacable forces shaped the origin and development of all life on earth. And man, long held to be a special creation by God – was merely just another evolved animal. One idea united all these men; if nature was red in tooth and claw, where the fittest only survived, surely human societies had a duty to follow suit. Suddenly the centuries old Christian ideals of compassion, sympathy and charity, respecting all individuals as unique creations of the Godhead, were now being portrayed as vice – deluded and ‘pusillanimous’ – and certainly not how an enlightened mankind ought to behave. And yet, all the while, there were (and still are) Christians who came to accept evolution, they do so ignorantly, since the latest scientific advances, which sadly, are not investigated by Holland in this treatise, are now rapidly and firmly demolishing those claims.

The God of the Bible is the God of love. Shouldn’t love always win? Holland looks at some controversial manifestations of ‘love wins,’ including the rise of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle in the modern world and the ordination of women clergy. If life-long monogamous relationships are the Christian ideal, Holland asks, what is so immoral about gay marriage? And if the Bible teaches that men and women are equal but different in the eyes of God, who shows no impartiality, why can’t women deliver sermons from the pulpit? Holland shies away from offering his own opinion on these questions but suffice it to say that a close reading of the Bible condemns all homosexual acts as gross violations of God’s plan for human beings. What’s more, such deviant behaviour has a strong destabilising influence on the nuclear family. And, as to the question of women clergy, St. Paul only offers his opinion (in the negative) rather than stating that it is a decree from Sovereign Lord, and thus is open to fresh debate.

Dominion is a book that deserves to be read by a broad cross-section of society, by people of faith and those of none. And while Holland maintains a decidedly agnostic tone throughout, he is certainly sympathetic to and, I suspect, somewhat in awe of the long shadow the Christian worldview has cast over human civilisation; a shadow that shows little sign of abating in the 21st century.

 

Dr. Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. He also earned a Diploma in Classical Studies from the Open University. His latest historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, demonstrates how the science of astronomy was profoundly influenced by observers fully committed to the Christian faith.

 

De Fideli.

Paradigm Shifts.

The Story of the Solar System: The Primordial Earth - skyatnightmagazine

Originally Published in Salvo Magazine Volume 50

“Life should not exist. This much we know from chemistry. In contrast to the ubiquity of life on Earth, the lifelessness of other planets makes far better chemical sense.” So writes Professor James Tour, one of the world’s foremost synthetic organic chemists, based at Rice University in Texas. Intimately acquainted with the latest research in prebiotic chemistry, Tour has expressed severe skepticism that a plausible naturalistic mechanism for the origin of life will be found any time soon. But he goes even further:

 

“We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on Earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense. Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our Universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the Earth.”1

Dr. Tour’s views have surfaced at a time when astronomers have been peering into the depths of space, searching for intelligent signals from hypothetical alien civilizations. Yet although they have been listening for more than half a century, ET has not chimed in. The quest to detect life beyond the Earth is admittedly in its infancy, but the negative results thus far produced have caused more than a few scientists to question the underlying assumptions made by the early pioneers in the quest to find extra-terrestrial life: Frank Drake and Carl Sagan.

Despite what the general media report, there are a number of serious problems with the standard origin-of-life models, for which their proponents have failed to provide good answers. For example, life on Earth requires a source of homochiral molecules, that is, molecules that are capable of rotating the plane of polarized light either to the left (L) or to the right (D). Specifically, life invariably requires L amino acids and D sugars. But so far, chemists have been unable to identify a plausible natural mechanism by which these left- and right-handed biomolecules can be generated at the high level of purity necessary for the first cells to form. Indeed, such molecules can only be synthesised under highly constrained laboratory conditions, using purified (read bought in) reagents, which have little or no relevance to the environment of the early Earth. And while meteorites have been found that contain small amounts of amino acids, they invariably are shown to contain equal amounts of L and D isomers (technically known as a racemic mixture).

In short, no conceivable naturalistic scenario could result in the generation of the large, stable ensembles of homochiral ribose and homochiral amino acids that all naturalistic origin-of-life models require, affirming why no such natural sources have ever been found.2 I recently asked Dr. Tour directly if the problem of homochirality had been solved, and he firmly responded, “No; it is far from solved.”

 

The Phosphorus Conundrum

The element phosphorus is vital for the proper functioning of living cells, being a constituent of both RNA and DNA, as well as of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the universal energy currency of all known life forms. But recent work conducted by Cardiff University astronomers suggests that phosphorus could be scarce in many parts of the universe. “Phosphorus is one of just six major chemical elements on which Earth organisms depend,” says Dr. Jane Greaves, and it is crucial to the compound ATP, which cells use to store and transfer energy. Astronomers have just started to pay attention to the cosmic origins of phosphorus and found quite a few surprises. In particular, phosphorus is created in supernovae—the explosions of massive stars—but the amounts seen so far don’t match our computer models. I wondered what the implications were for life on other planets if unpredictable amounts of phosphorus are spat out into space and later used in the construction of new planets.3

 

The Cardiff team used the UK’s William Herschel telescope, situated on La Palma in the Canary Islands, to measure the levels of phosphorus and iron in the Crab Nebula, a well-known supernova remnant. They compared those figures to measurements taken earlier from another supernova remnant known as Cassiopeia A (Cas A). Their preliminary results proved very surprising. While the measurements of Cas A showed relatively high levels of phosphorus, those from the Crab Nebula showed far lower levels. “The two explosions seem to differ from each other, perhaps because Cas A results from the explosion of a rare type of super-massive star,” said Dr. Phil Cigan, another member of the Cardiff team. “If phosphorus is sourced from supernovae,” added Greaves, and then travels across space in meteoritic rocks, I’m wondering if a young planet could find itself lacking in reactive phosphorus because of where it was born? That is, it started off near the wrong kind of supernova? In that case, life might really struggle to get started out of phosphorus-poor chemistry on another world otherwise similar to our own.4

 

Re-evaluating the Drake Equation

Ever since the American astronomer Frank Drake introduced his famous eponymous equation in the early 1960s, astronomers have produced widely varying estimates of the number of extant extra-terrestrial civilizations present in the Milky Way Galaxy. Until fairly recently, the estimates varied from 10,000 to a few million. Countering these estimates, some scientists have re-examined the so-called Fermi Paradox, posed by the distinguished Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in the form of a question: If the universe is so large, with innumerable habitable planets, then why have we not detected any sign of ET?

A team of scientists and philosophers based at the Institute of Humanity in Oxford University has taken a new look at the reasoning behind the Drake equation, and found that its optimistic expectations are linked to models like the Drake equation itself. The problem, as these researchers point out, is that all such models “implicitly assume certainty regarding highly uncertain parameters.” Indeed, following an analysis, they concluded that “extant scientific knowledge corresponds to uncertainties that span multiple orders of magnitude.” When these uncertainties are introduced, the outcome is strikingly different: “When the models are re-cast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial ex ante probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.” This result, they assert, “dissolves the Fermi paradox, and in doing so removes any need to invoke speculative mechanisms by which civilizations would inevitably fail to have observable effects upon the universe.”5

 

Questioning the Mediocrity Principle

Over the past few decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of exo-planets orbiting nearby stars, so that now there is little doubt that the number of planets in the observable universe likely exceeds the number of stars. Exo-planet hunters have discovered that many of these planets orbit their stars within the so-called habitable zone—that narrow annulus around a star that allows for the stable existence of water on a planet’s surface. Nevertheless, as geologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee argued in their highly influential book, Rare Earth; Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe,6 many of the features of planet Earth that have made it suitably equipped to allow both microbial and complex life to flourish on it over billions of years are likely very rare in the rest of the Universe.

For instance, the vast majority of potentially habitable exo-planets orbit low-mass red dwarf stars, which make up 75 percent of all the stars in the galaxy.7 These stars are much more active than sun-like stars, thus exhibiting higher rates of flaring than does the Sun. Many such stars also generate strong stellar winds that could strip away the atmospheres of their planets.8 And many planets are located so close to their parent stars that they have become tidally locked, meaning that they do not rotate on an axis but constantly present the same face to their stars as they move in their orbits. Yet another issue pertains to the potential of gravitational perturbations of a habitable planet by its neighbouring planets. Even small changes to the orbital characteristics of a planet could extirpate any developing life that might exist upon it. All these conditions raise many problems for the development of any hypothetical life forms on the surface of these planets over long periods of time.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is currently being utilized in a special program called HAZMAT—Habitable Zones and M Dwarf Activity Across Time. And the early results from the program do not look encouraging. Preliminary data on just a dozen young red dwarf stars show that the frequency of flaring is much higher in them than in stars like the Sun; they typically emit flares with energies that are between 100 and 1,000 times higher than those of their elder counterparts. The most energetic red dwarf flares, dubbed Hazflares, are far more energetic than the most energetic flares ever to come from the Sun. “With the Sun, we have a hundred years of good observations,” says Parke Loyd, a member of the scientific team involved in the project.

And in that time, we’ve seen one, maybe two, flares that have an energy approaching that of the Hazflare. In a little less than a day’s worth of Hubble observations of these young stars, we caught the Hazflare, which means that we’re looking at superflares happening every day or even a few times a day.9

So-called super-earths—worlds larger than the Earth but smaller than Neptune—have recently been identified as possible candidate worlds for the development of life, but there is as yet no scientific consensus on whether they can maintain or even allow plate tectonic activity to occur in their crusts. Without plate tectonics, there will be far less efficient nutrient re-cycling, which would greatly hinder the flourishing of hypothetical life forms.

In March 2019, a team of astronomers based at the Australian National University dealt yet another blow to the prospects of finding viable exo-planetary biosystems. Modelling the magnetic fields of a large number of exo-planets, the astronomers concluded that planets with a strong magnetic field, like Earth, are likely to be very rare. “Magnetic fields appear to play an essential role in making planets habitable, so I wanted to find out how Earth’s magnetic field compared to those of other potentially habitable planets,” says Sarah Macintyre, the lead author of the paper.10 “We find most detected exo-planets have very weak magnetic fields, so this is an important factor when searching for potentially habitable planets,” she added.

Life on Mars or Venus?

Scarcely a year goes by without the question arising of whether or not Mars has microbial life. This issue was brought into sharp focus in June 2018, when NASA scientists announced the discovery by the rover Curiosity of organic matter in the soil of an ancient lakebed.11 But “organic matter” means different things to different people. Simply put, matter that is carbon-rich is not necessarily derived from biogenic sources.

More broadly though, if evidence of either extant or past life on Mars is uncovered, it might well also be discovered that such life originated on Earth. Indeed, it is estimated that over the 4-billion-year history of life on Earth, so much terrestrial soil has found its way to Mars that the Red Planet can boast an average of 2 kilograms of terrestrial soil per square kilometre of its surface (or about 11.3 pounds per square mile).12 It is certainly possible that some microbial life was delivered there along with the soil—in fact, the discovery of either extant microbial life or microfossils on Mars or the recent claim of life in the clouds of Venus might well be anticipated. If that happens, astrobiologists will need to consider the possibility that it came from Earth before claiming that any such life originated on these worlds. The popular media, pushing sensationalism, would never be so cautious.

Questioning Biosignatures on Exo-planets

Oxygenic photosynthesis by plants is the mechanism that produces the vast majority of the molecular oxygen in the terrestrial atmosphere. So for several decades, astrobiologists have speculated that the detection of oxygen in the atmosphere of an exo-planet would provide good evidence that life must exist there.13 While the detection of substantial levels of this gas would certainly be suggestive of the presence of plant life as we know it, it pays to remember that there are established abiotic mechanisms (mechanisms derived from non-living sources) that also can generate substantial molecular oxygen.

A group headed by Chinese astronomer Feng Tian of Tsinghua University published two interesting papers in 2009 that show that stars having less than 50 percent of the mass of the Sun (i.e., the majority of stars) emit copious quantities of hard UV rays and soft X rays throughout their long nuclear burning phases of up to 10 billion years.14 They also showed that when a lifeless exo-planet possessing carbon dioxide in its atmosphere is irradiated, the rays can break down the CO2 into carbon atoms and molecular oxygen. Over time, the carbon atoms, being less massive, escape into space, leaving the molecular oxygen behind. Tian’s calculations show that this molecular oxygen can reach concentrations of a few percent and so might be confused with a genuine biosignature.

 When a team of chemists from Johns Hopkins University simulated the atmospheres of exo-planets beyond the solar system, they found that they could create simple organic molecules and oxygen under various scenarios without the mediation of life.15 “Our experiments produced oxygen and organic molecules that could serve as the building blocks of life in the lab, proving that the presence of both doesn’t definitively indicate life,” says Chao He, assistant research scientist in the Johns Hopkins Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “Researchers need to more carefully consider how these molecules are produced.” Up-and-coming missions, such as the highly anticipated ones utilizing the James Webb Space Telescope, would need to take results like these into account before jumping to any firm conclusions about the habitability of a candidate planet. As a case in point, the recent flap in the media about the detection of phosphine on Venus, upon further analysis, showed that the biomarker in question was not,  in fact, present in statistically significant levels.

In a recent development, a team of planetary scientists led by Li Zeng at Harvard University estimated that as many as 35 percent of exo-planets may have impenetrable water oceans hundreds of kilometres deep.16 But while NASA has long adopted the mantra, “follow the water,” the same scientists caution that these planets are very unlikely to be habitable. Their fathomless ocean worlds would generate pressures millions of times greater than those found on Earth, resulting in exotic, rock-like ice formations many kilometres deep (such as ice VII) covering their floors. Such conditions would prevent any nutrient recycling from occurring, thus rendering these planets sterile.

Call for Caution

Investigating whether extra-terrestrial life exists or not is a profoundly important and interesting scientific endeavor, but at this point, there are good grounds for remaining skeptical about whether it actually exists. Given the arguments raised in this article, it is entirely reasonable to think that life might be extraordinarily rare in the universe, perhaps even unique to Earth. Only time will tell.

 

Notes

  1. James Tour, An Open Letter to My Colleagues (August 2017): http://inference-review.com/article/an-open-letter-to-my-colleagues.
  2. Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana, Origins of Life (RTB Press, 2014).
  3. “Paucity of phosphorus hints at precarious path for extraterrestrial life” (Apr. 4, 2018): eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-04/ras-pop040318.php.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Anders Sandberg et al., “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox” (June 8, 2018):

https://arxiv.org/pdf/1806.02404.pdf.

  1. Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth; Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (Copernicus Books, 2000).
  2. “Superflares from young red dwarf stars imperil planets,” NASA News (Oct. 22, 2018):

https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/news/1527/superflares-from-young-red-dwarf-stars-imperil-planets.

  1. O. Cohen et al., “Magnetospheric Structure and Atmospheric Joule Heating of Habitable Planets Orbiting M-Dwarf Stars,” Astrophysical Journal 790 (July 2014): doi:10.1088/0004-637X/790/1/57.
  2. Ibid., note 7.
  3. “Strong planetary magnetic fields like Earth’s may protect oceans from stellar storms,” Royal Astronomical Society (Mar. 14, 2019): https://m.phys.org/news/2019-03-strong-planetary-magnetic-fields-earth.html.
  4. Jennifer L. Eigenbrode et al., “Organic Matter Preserved in 3-Billion-Year-Old Mudstones at Gale Crater, Mars,” Science 360 (June 8, 2018): https://doi:10.1126/science.aas9185.
  5. Ibid., note 2.
  6. Carl Sagan et al., “A Search for Life on Earth from the Galileo Spacecraft,” Nature 365 (Oct. 21, 1993): nature.com/articles/365715a0.
  7. Feng Tian, “Thermal Escape from Super Earth Atmospheres in the Habitable Zones of M Stars,” Astrophysical Journal 703 (Sept. 2, 2009): https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/96200/Tian-2009-THERMAL%20ESCAPE%20FROM.pdf;sequence=1; Feng Tian et al., “Thermal Escape of Carbon from the Early Martian Atmosphere,” Geophysical Research Letters 26 (Jan. 31, 2009): https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2008GL036513.
  8. Chao He et al., “Gas Phase Chemistry of Cool Exoplanet Atmospheres: Insight from Laboratory Simulations,” ACS Earth Space Chemistry (Nov. 26, 2018): https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsearthspacechem.8b00133.
  9. Li Zeng et al., “Growth model interpretation of planet size distribution,” PNAS (Apr. 29, 12019): pnas.org/content/early/2019/04/23/1812905116.

 

 

Neil English has been following developments in pre-biotic chemistry and astrobiology for the last 25 years. He holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a BSc(Hons) in physics & astronomy. His latest book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy (Springer, 2018), explores four centuries of visual astronomy. The article first appeared in Salvo Magazine Summer 2019. You can support his ongoing work by making a small donation to his website. Thanks for reading!

 

 

De Fideli.

A Brief Reaquaintance with my First Roof Prism Binocular.

The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 binocular.

A work begun August 21 2020.

It was in October 2018 that I began my first, tentative adventures in surveying the  modern binocular market. I had entirely neglected the massive technological changes that had occurred in the industry that continued to drive quality up and prices down; indeed, just like what had already happened in the telescope market. With a background in astronomy, I had stuck fervently to my old 7 x 50 porro prism binocular from the late 1980s and wasn’t at all prepared for what three decades of innovation wrought to the consumer. And boy was I surprised after I received my first roof prism model – a Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 – and compared it with the ole clunker!

The smaller aperture Barr & Stroud had a brighter, sharper and more contrasty image than the ‘high quality’ 7 x 50 porro I had been gifted by a past girl friend.

I suspect that this revelation was not unique to yours truly. Indeed, I imagined that there must be hundreds if not thousands of amateur astronomers the length and breadth of the country who would have been equally shocked by comparing a modern, entry-level roof prism binocular to an old school porro prism exemplified in the 7x or 10 x 50! If that’s you, I can say, hand on heart, that you will literally be blown away by what can now be purchased for a very modest investment.

I had chosen Barr & Stroud solely on the basis of carefully assessing the many enthusiastic reports I had garnered about this old company that once supplied all manner of optical equipment to the British navy during two World Wars. But after the War years, the company experienced a barrage of new challenges that resulted in the company’s decline. Finally, in 1977, Barr & Stroud ceased to exist as an independent trader and with it, an industry that held many trade secrets on how to build a good binocular.

Then, round about 2010, the vintage brand reappeared with a new range of modern binoculars catering for the budget conscious/ beginner birder market. But it lo longer existed as an independent company. Rather it was bought out by Optical Vision Limited UK, who also own perhaps more familiar names like Helios, Acuter, Zenith and Fotomate. The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 was an extremely delightful experience for me, and whetted my appetite for exploring the binocular market still further. And the rest, as they say, is history.

After I had acquired better models, I gifted the Sahara to my sister- and brother-in law who were also delighted with its performance and served them well on their many fishing and camping trips all over Scotland. During a recent visit to their home in the west end of Glasgow, I got another chance to evaluate it in light of everything I had learned about binocular optics testing in the subsequent two years. So I took it home and brought it on a couple of walks to see how well it was faring.

Exceptional Focusers

First of all, I was very impressed with its build quality; this was a fully weather armoured instrument with a light-weight polycarbonate chassis housing the properly multi-coated optics. The textured rubber and ribbed upper mono bridge design provides for easy and secure handling either with or without  gloves. The large, central focus wheel is notable; it is one of the smoothest I’ve personally encountered and that’s comparing it to a number of big brand models from Opticron, Zeiss and Leica! Indeed, having sampled several binoculars from Barr & Stroud including the more expensive Sierra, Savannah and Series 5 models offered by the same company, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that all of their focusers were superb. They all operated flawlessly with buttery smooth precision and zero backlash, whether constructed of metal or plastic. This can’t be a fluke; it must be attributed the the company’s attention to detail and considerable practical knowledge on how to design and execute a good focusing wheel on all its optical devices. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the Barr & Stroud binocular focusers can outdo top tier companies like Leica in terms of long term productivity. If I asked the same question a decade hence, I doubt I’d get the same answer. But so far, they’ve never failed to impress and have never let me down!

Something you’ll never see in a contemporary binocular discussion; comparing two models with a ten fold price differential in terms of ergonomics. Right, the Leica Trinovid HD 8 x 32 and the Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 (left).

Other ergonomic considerations

The twist up eye cups on the Sahara are fairly basic and are quite representative of what is provided in the lower tier of the market. That said, and unlike quite a few other models costing a few times more, these rubberised plastic cups still work fine after a few years of use. Yes, one cup is considerably stiffer than the other, but once fully extended, they click into place and rigidly maintain their positions, even after applying considerable pressure to them. Again, while the low-cost materials out of which they are constructed are fairly generic in a lot of entry-level models, these Sahara eye cups still work well because they were put together by a competent team of assemblers.

Ditto the rubber armouring used on the instrument. After giving it some close inspection, it has not peeled or come away from the chassis and retains a good rugged and grippy feel. I can’t say the same thing for a number of much more expensive models I’ve sampled including, most notably, the Nikon Prostaff and Monarch range of binoculars that are so popular today!

The same is true of the right eye dioptre on the unit. It has quite a bit of inertia, to use an old fashioned term, meaning that once it’s set it is very unlikely to move unless deliberately tampered with. Sure, it doesn’t have the sophistication of a lockable device seen on some more expensive models, but I consider this to be superfluous to the needs of the vast majority of glassers. It is an eminently practical solution still employed on some of the best binoculars on the market today, including the venerable Leica Trinovid HD shown above. Furthermore, although some of the company’s more sophisticated models such as Barr & Stroud’s excellent Savannah binocular, has its dioptre dial placed ahead of the focus wheel on the bridge, it is not necessarily a better solution, as I have discovered in extensive field use.

Optics

Although the Sahara lacks sophisticated optical refinements such as phase corrected prisms, it still serves up a good, sharp and bright image during ordinary daylight conditions. The field of view is wide (129m @ 1000m), but not so wide that the effects of off-axis field curvature, barrel distortion and astigmatism become overwhelming. I’ve lost count of the number of binoculars I’ve tested costing considerably more than this unit, that offered tack sharp images inside a central sweet spot, only to show horribly distorted and unfocused images in the outermost part of the field. An eminently sensible optical design would curtail field of view in order to maintain a decent level of off-axis performance that won’t be immediately off putting to a novice enthusiast. Indeed, in my own personal journey through the maze of modern binocular  brands, I have developed a strong preference for smaller, better-corrected fields than uber-wide fields showing too much off axis aberrations. For me, field of view is most certainly not king!

I never got a chance to test the Sahara binocular for light leaks in the customary (and, dare I say, much more discriminatory) manner, I’ve developed in my later binocular reviews, but I now have. My results show a significant amount of internal reflections as well as diffused light that was very similar in profile to an 8 x 32 model marketed by Eyeskey. I interpreted these results to mean that Barr & Stroud has been working with the same optical materials – lenses, prisms etc – used to construct many other entry-level roof prism models. These effects are easily seen in night time tests on street lighting, which show some internal reflections in the field of view and rather strong diffused light, indicative of possible homogeneity issues with the quality of the optical glass employed. What this means is that one might expect the Sahara to show up some glare and internal reflections when glassing a bright Moon(untested by the author) which will be inferior to more expensive models having higher quality optical glass and coatings etc. That said, the Eyeskey, costing about half the price of the Barr & Stroud Sahara, was not in the same league as the latter in daylight optical evaluations, showing a smaller sweet spot, more chromatic aberration and stronger off-axis aberrations.  All of these experiences allowed me to advance the following hypothesis regarding the differences between this less expensive Eyskey model and the Barr & Stroud(both of which are manufactured in China). Using the same quality of optical materials, differences in the assembly of such devices yields very significant differences in perceived optical quality. The Barr & Stroud Sahara is assembled by a more knowledgeable/skilled team than those assembling the Eyeskey marketed model. It’s all in the assembly!

Light Transmission Efficiency

Comparing the Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 to the Viking Optical Merlin ED 8 x 32( bottom).

As noted previously, The Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42 does not have a phase coating applied to the roof prisms, nor does it have dielectric coatings to boost light transmission. I was able to detect a significant difference in the quality of the image a phase coating can do to the image in a previous communication, where I compared the views through the Sahara and the more expensive Sierra 8 x 42 model offered by the same company. Nor did the Sahara have any extra low dispersion(ED) lens elements to improve image contrast and perceived sharpness.

In many previous blogs, I demonstrated that ED glass does not significantly boost light transmission but I did attribute greater light transmission to the presence of dielectric coatings applied to the roof prisms. I was able to evaluate these technologies more fully in a side by side test I conducted recently between the 8 x 42 Sahara and the smaller Viking Optical Merlin ED 8 x 32, which does have all the aforementioned optical advances. By day, the Merlin offers up a sharper, more contrasty image than the Sahara but the differences are subtle and not at all like ‘night and day,’ as often reported by others. But testing at dusk – after sunset on a cloudy August evening – did reveal the significant advantages of having better coating technology.

All other things being equal you’d expect a 72 per cent light gathering boost for the larger aperture Sahara binocular. But in low light conditions, the larger exit pupil on the same binocular (5.25mm as opposed to 4mm on the Merlin), might be expected to further extend that advantage to the Sahara. My results showed that although the image was brighter in the larger aperture Barr & Stroud unit, it was much closer than I had expected! Specifically, the Merlin was showing how much more efficiently it was bringing light to my eyes than the Sahara. Its super-high reflectivity dielectric, and phase coated prisms, as well as better control of stray light, were certainly responsible for these gains in low light performance. That said, under fully dark adapted eyes on a Scottish August night, the larger aperture Sahara proved itself to be a better star gazing binocular, reeling in fainter stars and providing better views of a variety of deep sky objects. That’s due to the larger exit pupil in the 8 x 42 compared with the 8 x 32.

Conclusions

So, there you have it! Maybe you can better see why I would choose this binocular again if I were starting out. Now that the scamdemic has hobbled the economies of the nations of the world, millions more families are going to feel the financial pinch in the coming months and years. If you’re after a no-nonsense binocular that will give decent images of God’s creation for a price under £80 UK, you’ll be very hard pressed to find a better model than the Barr & Stroud Sahara 8 x 42. You don’t have to take my word for it either; check out the many reviews of this model online and also have a look at comments made about these models by experienced birders. Happy glassing and thanks for reading!

 

Bird Guide Commentary

Neil English sorts out the bull & bling from the salt & light of the binocular world. You can support his work by making a small personal donation, or by purchasing one of his seven books. 

 

 

De Fideli.

Journey to the Northwest Highlands.

Sunset July 18, Achnasheen, Poolew, Ross-Shire.

From July 17 through 24 2020, our family took a vacation in the Scottish Northwest Highlands. We originally booked a holiday cottage in Gairloch for the week before(July 4 through 11) but the government lock-down owing to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly put paid to that plan. As luck would have it though, the same firm we booked the cottage through offered us another accommodation in the neighbouring village of Poolewe, just six miles from Gairloch for the following week, when shops and restaurants were allowed to open up. Having spent months at home, we naturally jumped at the chance!

The Northwest Highlands is not a place you would want to go for warm summer weather. But for natural beauty and a place to contemplate God’s glorious creation, I can’t think of a better place. The cottage we secured was spacious and comfortable with a large and well maintained garden. There was no internet connection – not even a telephone signal – but after months of the kids sat behind computer screens during the lockdown, it was exactly what the doctor ordered; a place where we could fully re-connect as a family and cast away our anxieties about all the dark events happening in the world.

The cottage, Poolewe.

The village itself only has about 200 inhabitants, many of which are retired couples who have sold up from the cities and moved here to enjoy their autumn years.

This part of the British Isles(57.7 degrees north latitude)  is renowned for its beautiful, pristine beaches and unspoiled coastline, making it a favourite haunt for birders and other nature lovers. In mid July, dark night time skies are out of the question owing to strong twilight. The weather forecast didn’t bode well for star gazing during this week either, so I decided against bringing along a telescope but instead decided to carry a pair of binoculars; little and large – my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 and my Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 high-power binocular which was mounted on a lightweight tripod/monopod. In addition, my eldest son brought along his 8 x 32 compact and my younger boy his 6.5 x 21 Papilio II.

But the trip was not entirely about leisure, at least for my wife. As a research technician in the Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, her research group had been given the task of sampling the sands of the beaches all along the northwest coast to measure a number of radioactive isotopes. This work was commissioned by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). That meant that we were to visit a number of beaches centred on Poolewe, which worked well for everyone; the boys could enjoy a swim and we could get good walks in along the beach collecting the samples.

Redpoint Beach, Ross-shire. Isle of Skye seen in the distance.

I had decided to bring along my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 as my main daytime binocular, partly because I had been feeling guilty about treating it more as an ornament than a dedicated field instrument. But as I was to discover, this little binocular is built like a tank(albeit a very small one lol) and was meant to be properly used.  Indeed, I was more than delighted how well it put up with the vagaries of the northwest weather, which can change from bright, calm and sunny one minute, and then wet and windy the next. And during this week away, it endured heating in the Sun, sand, spray and even heavy downpours, coping admirably with the changing conditions. But it wasn’t exactly a free lunch; those difficult conditions meant that I had to clean the optics a couple of times during the week!

No little jessie: the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is a rugged pocket glass built for the great outdoors.

Contrary to what some binocular commentators have made, the Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 is easy to use. They claim that the small exit pupil of the binocular(2.5mm) is hard to square on with one’s eyes. But like all things in life, that’s only true for lack of practice. Indeed, I have given mention before that in strong daylight, there is little advantage to using a larger glass as one’s exit pupil shrinks to 2 or 3mm at the most. Furthermore, the best part of the your pupil is the central few millimetres, so when imaging with a small exit pupil you are minimising the optical aberrations inherent to one’s own eyes and this yields fine images only limited by the quality of the glass.

Beaches are excellent places for glassing.

Glassing on the beach is one long adventure. Many types of birds – waders and gulls especially – grace the shoreline – providing many opportunities to study their antics. The  rich colours, contours and grains of rocks, polished by the tides over countless millennia, all kinds of seaweed, beached jelly fish, crabs and other crustaceans, and brightly coloured shells of long-dead sea creatures, present many wonders to the eye, as do the ceaseless activities of the lapping waves constantly yielding their treasures as flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict. Each new binocular field presents something new and unfamiliar; endless visual riches provided by our Creator.

The pristine white sands of Melon Udrigle, Ross-shire.

For higher resolution daylight observations, I set up my Pentax 20 x 60 porro prism binocular. This fully waterproof binocular also has a small exit pupil of 3mm, and thanks to its aspherical eyepieces, it delivers a very sharp, high-contrast, flat-field images, with great centre-to-edge correction.

The optically excellent Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 binocular.

Mounted to an extra-tall but lightweight tripod, with a strong ball & socket adaptor, the 20 x 60 is ultra-stable and very easy to use and manoeuvre. I was able to enjoy great close-up views of the barren, rocky crags in the surrounding hills, and boats anchored in the shallow bay a mile or so from the cottage. It also provided excellent images of trees in the neighbourhood, where I enjoyed watching crows, wood pigeons and even the occasional collar dove drop by.

The Pentax 20 x 60 is great for monitoring the Sun in white light.

But the 20 x 60 also came in handy for continuing my monitoring of the solar disk using home-made white light solar filters constructed from Baader astro-solar material. Indeed, during brighter spells in the morning or afternoon, I could whisk the binocular-mounted tripod out from the utility room and observe the Sun at a moment’s notice. Indeed, I got a minor surprise when I spotted my second spot of the summer season at 11.43 BST on the morning of July 22. It didn’t grow or amount to very much though – just one tiny sunspot crossing the solar disk. The last time I recorded it was on the afternoon of July 31. I’ve not seen another thus far into August(22nd).

Alas, the Sun continues to be unusually quiescent.

The ultra stable and smooth ball & socket bracket used to mount and move the big 20 x 60 binocular.

There was no night during our trip where I enjoyed long clear spells. The best I got was a couple of nights where the sky was partially clear, but it was enough for me to see Comet Neowise in deep twilight shortly after midnight on the morning of July 19 near the Plough asterism. By then, it had faded back to a third magnitude object, but the image scale in the Pentax binocular was good enough for me to get a decent view of its nucleus and bright dusty tail. I also put the 20 x 60 to good use observing a few choice binocular doubles.The tripod and its ball and socket adaptor allowed me to achieve rock-solid stability and silky-smooth tracking of a number of systems, enabling me to resolve a few targets that I could never achieve using a monopod alone. The 20 x 60 served up gorgeous images of Albireo, the’ fake triple’ system of Iota Bootis, O^1 Cygni, Mizar & Alcor, the lovely orange pair 61 Cygni, Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and the lovely chance alignment of Eta(blue) and Theta (orange) Lyrae, which presented as a grand colour contrast ‘double’ somewhat to the east of the main stars of the celestial Lyre.

On the warm and sultry afternoon of July 22, we took a stroll down the road to pay a visit to one of the most famous cultivated gardens in Scotland. Inverewe Gardens, situated on the shores of Loch Ewe, is home to some of the most exotic floral species in all of Britain, thanks to the mild Gulf Stream which keeps the site largely frost free, even in the depths of winter. Here you’ll find pre-historic trees such as the Wollemi pine, and all manner of  rhododendrons native to China, India and Nepal. Himalayan poppies adorn the beautiful walled garden at the site, as well as fascinating Tasmanian eucalyptus trees with their aromatic leaves and beautiful, variegated trunks. As you can imagine, such a visit wouldn’t have been complete without bringing along the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 ultra-close focusing binocular, which provides stunning up-close-and-personal views of the many ornate flowers that grace the grounds of this extraordinary place.

Our youngest son, Douglas, proudly carrying the wonderful little Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21.

My wife actually wanted to visit these gardens in May, but the lock-down made this impossible. But better to visit in July than not pay a visit at all, I suppose.

Magnificent trees grace the gardens, but I was especially taken by the Eucalyptus. As it turned out, I discovered the same kind of tree at the bottom of the garden in our rented cottage, so my guess is that, at one time in the past, the owners managed to plant a young tree and watched it grow to maturity over the years.

Check out the bark on this Eucalyptus tree.

Here’s a question for you: can a banana tree thrive in Scotland?

Yes!

You what mate?

A banana tree: no bananas though!

We encountered several varieties of Bamboo on our walk too:

Wild bamboo.

In one part of the garden, we stumbled across some wicker soldiers commemorating those who lost their lives in the great world wars of the 20th century:

Wicker soldiers.

The garden had many beautiful flowers in full bloom, like these Violet Geraniums:

Violet Geraniums.

The Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 proved to be the perfect instrument for examining these wonders of creation in exquisite detail. With its ultra-close focus of just 18 inches, can you begin to imagine the levels of detail one can capture?

Say, that’s a queer looking cabbage eh?

Douglas had so lost himself looking at close-up views of the foliage that I had to remind him that the instrument also served as a regular binocular; you know; for glassing objects at a distance! At one stage, I found him strolling ahead on the walk while keeping the Papilio to his eyes. Not a sensible thing to do though, as he was to find out. After issuing him a stern verbal warning, he fell headlong into a flower bed lol! Luckily no damage was done to the flowers or the glasser on this occasion. The gardeners too were none the wiser(phew!).

As I mentioned in my review of the instrument linked to earlier, the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21 is a belter of a small binocular, serving up excellent high-contrast images at a very attractive price (just over £100 UK). I still use it quite often for all kinds of activities.It’s got a big, silky-smooth focuser and delivers a generous 7.5 degree true field. Indeed, I’ve not needed my Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 ever since the arrival of this instrument on the scene.

The beach sampling was more a labour of love than anything else. Always done when the tide is out, the bigger beaches required three samples, while the smaller ones only required two. My wife had to carry a GPS system to accurately record the positions of each sample and each one consisted of a few hundred grams of surface material. All of this had to be recorded while the sampling was taking place.

Doing science on the beach.

In the end, 32 bags of sand was collected from 8 beaches. And boy did the collective weight add up!

Sand ain’t light weight!

Just a few yards walk from the cottage stood an old war grave yard with an interesting pre-Christian Pictish stone. But I was much more interested in watching a platoon of screeching Swallows flitting to and fro over the weathered gravestones in pursuit of flying insects with the little Leica glass. It’s not the ideal birding binocular, that’s for sure, with its rather small field of view(6.5 degrees) and small exit pupil compared with a larger compact glass, but it certainly did the job admirably enough throughout the trip.

The old Commonwealth Grave yard, Poolewe.

The cottage had a little booklet advertising all the goings on in the catchment area. My interest was especially piqued by the number of local churches; Catholic, Church of Scotland, the Free Church and the Episcopalians to name just a few. Alas, none were open at the time of our visit but I was pleased to see that many were conducting online services on Sundays to cater for the spiritual needs of their congregations. The people of the northwest of Scotland and the Highlands and Islands still maintain a strong Christian faith; in sharp contradistinction to the secularism now all too common in the main towns and cities in and around the central belt.

The furthest north we ventured was Ullapool, located about 45 miles northwest of Inverness(the northernmost city in the British Isles). Here you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Lewis. Normally, this small seaside town is teeming with tourists at this time of year but because of the pandemic(or is it a scamdemic?) its streets and shops were unusually quiet. We enjoyed having a rummage through the various nick-nack shops looking for small gifts for our family and friends. I was delighted to find a book shop there as well, where I was able to pick up a title on introductory birding by the comedian(remember the Goodies?) and veteran twitcher, Bill Oddie. Truth be told, I had no idea how anyone could say so much about our feathered friends!

It made hilarious evening reading!

Packed full of infectious enthusiasm and many hilarious moments.

There are many fine hills and mountains to climb in the region but on this trip we did not attempt any. Perhaps the most imposing is Ben Eighe, just south of Loch Maree. Towering over 2,000 feet above the surrounding plains, it forms a chain of mountains in Wester Ross, two of which exceed 3,000 feet in elevation and are thus designated proper Munros.

Benn Eighe, Wester Ross.

If the evening remained fine, I would take a stroll down the road from the cottage to do a spot of glassing with the Leica pocket binocular along the River Ewe, linking Loch Maree with the open sea. One of the shortest rivers in the UK, at scarcely one mile long, the Ewe has long been prized by anglers for its Sea Trout and Salmon. And because it is so close to the sea, its appearance can change dramatically from hour to hour!

River Ewe- view from the bridge at high tide.

All in all, this was a very refreshing family trip away, with many fond memories of grand beaches, delicious lunches and gorgeous scenery – all provided courtesy of our Creator.

And, God willing, we will return here again some sunny day!

Looking down on Loch Maree.

Neil English is an avid optics enthusiast who is currently enjoying a new lease of life sorting out what’s what in the world of binoculars. If you like his work, why not consider making a small personal donation or consider purchasing one of his seven books. Thanks for reading!

 

De Fideli.

Product Review: The Viking Merlin ED 8 x 32.

The Merlin ED 8 x 32 by Viking Optical UK.

A work begun July 31 2020

Recently I put a Viking Optical Kestrel ED 8 x 42 through its paces, and reported very favourably regarding its optical and mechanical quality. But over the last few months I’ve been hankering after a high-quality, light weight birding binocular that offers good value for money but wouldn’t break the bank. My search brought me to consider the Merlin(after the raptor, not the mythical magician lol) ED 8 x 32 also offered by Viking Optical for reasons that I wish to highlight in this review. But my approach in this blog will be decidedly different to most other reviews in that I wish to assess its many optical and mechanical features in comparison to two other binoculars; a Celestron Trailseeker 8 x 32, which has many attributes in common with the Merlin, and a smaller, Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20, as an additional control in assessing optical and mechanical quality.

The Merlin Binocular at a Glance:

 

Specification: 8 x 32mm

Weight(with/without strap): 561g/518g

Dimensions: W/H: 12.9 x 12.3 cm

Optics: Double ED objective, fully broadband multi-coated, with phase and dielectrically coated roof prisms

Field of View: 7.8 angular degrees(137m@1000m)

Eye Relief: 15.6mm

Waterproof: Yes

Fogproof/Nitrogen purging: Yes

Focusing: Central

Tripod Mountable: Yes

Warranty: 10 years( 5 years parts & labour, 5 years parts only)

Accessories: Quality padded & neck strap,padded nylon carry case, rain guard, tethered objective covers, lens cleaning cloth.

Retail Price: £239.00

 

A Brief Word on Packaging: The Viking Merlin, just like the Kestrel 8 x 42 previously tested, came with the same high-quality presentation box, with all the above accessories included. Very nice!

Calvin Jones’ binocular guide booklet( 2017 edition).

I recently acquired a small booklet(47 pages), entitled, Choosing Binoculars For Birdwatching and Wildlife, written by Calvin Jones, founder and chairman of Ireland’s Wildlife.  Calvin, a veteran birder and naturalist, is a native of Wales, but has put down roots in West Cork, in the south of Ireland, where he offers tours to wildlife enthusiasts and birders. As an expert commentator on binoculars, his booklet consists of concise information and largely impartial advice to the general public on choosing a good binocular for nature observation. I would recommend this booklet to anyone interested in making a binocular purchase, and in this blog I’ll be comparing his advice on a point by point basis, to the binoculars showcased in this review, but will also be including additional tests not covered or mentioned by Mr. Jones in his booklet.

Quote: “Choosing quality optics is about finding the right compromise between size, weight, optical performance, ergonomics, practicality, function and price” Page 7.

Comment: Couldn’t agree more! Jones narrows down his recommendations to two principal formats: 8 x 42 and 8 x 32. For me, 8 x 42 carries a bit too much weight, especially as I intend to use it for many hours in the field. Thus I settled on the 8 x 32 format which offers most of the performance of the larger glass, during normal daylight hours at least, only showing some drawbacks to the larger instrument during very low light conditions. However, since I don’t do much terrestrial glassing at dawn or dusk, the greater light gathering power of the 42mm format is not necessary for my purposes. It is also worth noting that the smaller 8 x 32 format is less expensive than its larger counterpart, which is always good news.

Quote: “Today you can get a good pair of binoculars for a relatively modest investment of around £100-150, and you’ll find some excellent instruments in the £250-400 price bracket that will serve you faithfully for decades of bird watching and wildlife observation.” Page 9

Comment: Again, I couldn’t agree more! Jones is fully aware that the cost of including high tech optical features, previously only available on premium brands, is now standard on mid-priced binoculars. The same is true of mechanical quality as well, though not quite to the same extent. This is great news for the budget-conscious enthusiast. The Viking Merlin delivers wonderful performance for its modest price tag, but so does the less expensive Celestron Trailseeker( ~£145), which possesses all of the optical features of the Merlin bar its ED billing. Mechanically though, the Merlin is significantly better, with a smoother all-metal focus wheel and right eye dioptre ring( they are made of plastic on the Trailseeker), and better overall ergonomics.

Quote: “Unless you’re looking to use your binoculars for a particular specialist task, choose something in the 8x to 10x range for general bird watching and wildlife observation.”  Page 19

Comment: Agreed. But between 8x and 10x, I would generally opt for the former more often than not. The reasons are several fold: less shake at lower power, so affording steadier views, less compromised optical quality(at 10x you’ll be introducing 25 per cent more chromatic aberration, and commensurately greater off-axis Seidel aberrations, all other things being equal), the field of view will be also larger in general with the 8x model, which is beneficial for tracking your target and enjoying vistas, and of course, brighter images, owing to the larger exit pupils afforded by the lower power for a given aperture.

Quote: ” Here are a few optical features its worth looking out for when researching your new binoculars:

ED or HD lenses: Colour fringing can be an issue with standard binoculars, particularly when viewing high contrast subjects(light subjects against a dark background or vice versa). ED or HD glass reduces or eliminates colour fringing, improving the perceived sharpness, contrast and colour fidelity of the resulting image.” Page 23-24.

Comments: Here I must admit to being less in agreement with the author. Comparing the views through the Trailseeker and the Merlin (same field of view), I would agree that there is a slight but very subtle improvement in sharpness and image contrast in the latter instrument. The amount of chromatic aberration is so vanishingly small that it’s really only apparent when looking at dark objects against a very bright background sky and only if you look for it. I simply don’t accept that there are night and day differences at the low powers (both 8x) served up by these binoculars. Indeed, I believe the effect of ED glass is generally exaggerated in low power binoculars such as these by the majority of reviewers, and counts for little in the way of improved optical performance. I also read comments like “the colours are off” in non-ED binos, but I don’t understand that either. With trained, average eyes I feel this claim is an exaggeration of the truth. The differences are small at best!

Note added in proof: Jones adds this comment on page 26:

“Look out for HD or ED glass in the objective lens – but bear in mind that non-ED binoculars from premium manufacturers can, and often do, outperform ED optics from some other brands.”

Comment:

Too right. I have, and previously reported that, a very nice Leica Trinovid BCA 8 x 20, which doesn’t have ED glass elements, still delivered sharper and more contrasted images than a high-quality Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 binocular. So, don’t believe the hype!

To summarise: I would never base a purchase of a good quality binocular solely on its ED billing. While it’s certainly advantageous to have ED glass as part of a well designed optical system, a properly executed non-ED glass can provide wonderful results in all weathers.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

A Curious Aside: In one or two on-line birding sites I’ve visited I came across statements to the effect of ” for birding you need an ED binocular.”

Is that so?

May I ask a few questions?

How long has the hobby of birding been in existence? And for how many of those years were ED binoculars available? What did birders do before the days of ED; pack up and go home?

Aye right!

Thieving gayponaut propaganda…. methinks.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Quote: “Always choose fully-multi-coated optics for wildlife observation and birding. If you’re buying roof prisms look for phase correction …..dielectric coatings are better and deliver a brighter image but tend to cost significantly more…..look for additional protective lens coatings that shield the external lens surfaces.” Page 30.

Comments: Both the Merlin and the Trailseeker are fully multi-coated, have phase corrected optics as well as dielectric prism coatings. In my tests at dusk I noted no significant difference in the brightness of the image between the Merlin and the Trailseeker, so, once again, the claim made by more than a few reviewers – but not Mr. Jones himself –  that ED glass delivers brighter images is not substantiated by my findings. Indeed, while the ED glass should focus the light slightly more tightly, it cannot make a big difference to the brightness of the image. At 8x why should it?

What Calvin Jones does not mention much about in his booklet is control of glare, which the coatings on the lenses and prisms as well as the type of binocular baffling employed will certainly contribute to. In my tests conducted during bright overcast conditions in late July, I found the Leica Trinovid to have much stronger veiling glare than either the Celestron Trailseeker or the Viking Merlin.This is attributed to the much more greatly recessed objective elements in the latter instruments compared with the fully exposed objective lenses on the Leica Trinovid. However, such glare can be all but removed by shielding using your hand held above the objectives or by using a broad-rimmed hat.

Internal reflection is another important contributor to loss of contrast in a binocular image. This is easily assessed by directing an intense beam of light into the binocular and examining the images for evidence of internal reflections as well as any diffused light in the image. Well, as I indicated in other blogs, the Leica Trinovid has the best stray light control of any binocular I have tested. The coatings and baffles used by Leica effectively eliminate this annoying artefact.

To my great surprise (and relief), the Merlin proved fully the equal of the Leica in side by side tests. There was hardly any internal reflections at all – and very subdued at that – and showed no signs of contrast-robbing diffused light either. Indeed I scored both the Leica and the Merlin a 10 for this test. The Celestron Trailseeker did very well in the same tests but did show a little more in the way of internal reflections, reducing its score to maybe 8.5 on the same scale.

All three of these binoculars will provide excellent performance at night when looking at strongly illuminated cityscapes, a bright Moon and more besides.

Quote: “Adequate field of view is important, but a super-wide field isn’t really necessary..” Page 32

Comments: Strongly agree!  Many 8 x 32s try to push the envelope and deliver very wide fields, sometimes in excess of 8.0 angular degrees. But the wider the field, the more difficult it will be to control off axis aberrations, such as field curvature, pin-cushion distortion and astigmatism etc. Better to have a smaller field that displays better edge-to-edge sharpness than have a very wide field which blurs the image too much at the periphery. Both the Merlin and the Trailseeker deliver the same field of view of 137m@1000m (7.8 angular degrees) but I found the sweetspot (inside which the image remains really sharp and pleasant) in the Merlin to be slightly wider than in the Trailseeker, but none were in the same class as the superlative Leica, which displays clearly superior edge of field sharpness in the same tests conducted on a bright waxing gibbous Moon sinking low into the south-southwest sky on the evening of July 28 2020. However, it must be noted that the field of view of the Leica is noticeably smaller(6.5 angular degrees) than either of the 8 x 32s tested.

Quote: “Make sure the binoculars you buy are robust enough to stand up to the rigours of extended field use. Choose a lightweight but sturdy pair, with good balance and grip and always make sure they are fully waterproof and nitrogen or argon purged.” Page 39.

Comment: Mr. Jones makes a very valid point here. Fortunately, most mid-priced binoculars are very well built these days and are constructed of strong and lightweight materials; polycarbonate, and alloys of aluminium, titanium and/or magnesium. The Merlin is constructed from a polycarbonate substrate, the Trailseeker from a magnesium alloy, and aluminium, in the case of a Leica. Many binocular commentators suggest that the metal alloy bodies are more durable, but I don’t have, as yet, any evidence to corroborate that.

The Celestron Trailseeker tips the scales some 100g less than the Merlin, but while this should act in the Trailseeker’s favour, there are other issues to consider. In particular, ergonomics; how the instrument feels and works in your hands. The Merlin feels very solid and its shorter bridge than the Trailseeker means that I can get my fingers firmly wrapped around the barrels for a firmer grip while glassing. The hard rubber overcoat has excellent grip and doesn’t attract a lot of dust like other models, such as the Nikon Prostaff 8 x 30 I tried some months back. What’s more, I am confident it won’t feel off any time soon unlike the concerns I had with the sweet little Nikon binocular.

But let’s look at other things. Consider the eye cups on both the Trailseeker and the Merlin. Both are solidly made from soft rubber over metal and have a couple of click stops that stay rigidly in place and can accommodate different amounts of eye relief for spectacle wearers as well as for those, like yours truly, who observe without glasses. The quality is the same for both these 8 x 32s and hand-on-heart, I actually prefer the eye cups on the Trailseeker that little bit better. That said, the Merlin’s eye cups are strong and will hold up well, I suspect, even after years of use. One neat way to see if your binocular eye cups are up to scratch is to extend them outwards fully before turning the instrument upside down to see if they support the weight of the binocular. If they do, you’re in business. I’m delighted to say that both the Merlin and the Trailseeker pass this test with flying colours!

Other ergonomic issues to consider in a good birding binocular is the quality of the focus wheel. The Merlin has a smoother and more responsive focuser than the Trailseeker, with zero play or backlash. In addition, from one extreme of focus to the other entails turning it just over one revolution. The Trailseeker, in comparison, requires one and a half revolutions to go from one end of its focus travel to the other. This means that keeping objects in focus with the Viking Merlin is easier to achieve, especially on moving targets like birds in flight etc. That said, the Trailseeker actually has the better depth of focus, that is, it keeps objects in clear vision over a greater distance.

Going Minimal

After I cut off the bits of the neck strap I won’t be needing, I take a lighted match to the ends and melt it for a few seconds to stop it from fraying at some later stage.

One thing that really gets on my wick when using a binocular is the various appendages that attend the instrument- the tethered rain guard and objective lens caps, an unwieldy strap with ‘dangly’ bits getting in the way. Although I fully concede that the objective caps and rain guard are absolutely essential in some situations, on the average dry day, they are quite unnecessary to have on the binocular. I can do without the objective caps most of the time, as even in rainy situations, the objectives hang downward and the deeply recessed objective lenses act as natural protection against rain and mist. The rain guard need not be tethered to the strap either, but simply carried in a pocket and whipped onto the eye cups when the heavens open. Also, I can’t stand having too much slack in the binocular strap, so I cut them back to size and heat the cut ends with a match to stop them fraying at some later stage.

The result is a much leaner machine, one I can just pick up and use at a moment’s notice. Removing all such appendages also cuts down on the weight of the binocular. Indeed, in its minimalist form, it tips the scales at just 561g, which is much easier on the neck muscles!

The minimalist Merlin 8 x 32 weighs in at just 561g.

Quote: “While few people will buy binoculars solely on the strength of the warranty, and hopefully you won’t need to avail of it, a manufacturer’s willingness to stand over their product is obviously a major plus” Page 41

Comments: I agree. This is a very important aspect of any binocular purchase. It is very re-assuring to know that the company you buy your binocular from will stand behind their product and repair or replace parts as and when necessary. The fact that Viking Optical are a real optics firm and not just a retailer, I get the added benefit of knowing that even if the instrument is no longer under warranty, I can send it down to their technicians who will give it their professional attention and fix any problem that might arise.

Notes from the Field

I always use the stars to measure the field of view of a binocular. In this capacity, the Viking Merlin 8 x 32  was unable to fit the two bright stars of the Plough( Big Dipper in North America) Phecda and Merak in the same field – but just barely! Since these are 7.9 angular degrees apart, the stated field of the view of the Merlin at 7.8 angular degrees seems to be accurately stated.

I gave mention earlier in this blog about the exceptional suppression of stray light in the Viking Merlin binocular. This can also be seen in the lack of stray light around the ocular lenses as shown by the photograph below:

The Merlin 8 x 32 is a joy to use in the field, as it is robust but quite light weight. Having used it for many hours a day during our vacation to Pembrokeshire, South Wales, I was continually delighted with its extreme sharpness, excellent contrast and wonderful colour rendition. It handled many different types of terrain effortlessly; forests and woodland, open meadows and grassland, sandy beaches and wet & windy promontories and fishing piers. Yet despite being put through its paces, its quality mechanical build never left me down.

Pembrokeshire is a well known haunt for bird watchers, where many raptors can be seen gliding high in the sky, facilitated by warm summer ground thermals, or perched on telephone poles watching the fields below for unwary rodents. I saw several pairs of Buzzard, a few Peregrine falcons and even a lucky sighting of a Red Kite and Sparrowhawk. But the wonderful optics on the Viking Merlin 8 x 32, also allowed me to enjoy common birds, such as Black-headed and Herring gulls soaring on the salty sea air and Magpies, Robins, Starlings,  Swifts, Swallows, Blackbirds, Ravens and even the Common Crow are a joy to study with this small, high-quality outdoor glass.

But a 32mm binocular is no slouch when the Sun goes down either, as I was to discover. The sultry evening of August 3 2020 presented a gorgeous full Moon rising over the flat lands of my brother’s estate, near the beautiful fishing village of Fishguard. The image was tack sharp, neutral white, with excellent contrast and nary a sign of any glare or internal reflections common to lesser binoculars. But later in the week, the waning Gibbous Moon rose later in the wee small hours of the morning, I enjoyed some clear dark skies to examine favourite astronomical activities and targets, such as cruising through the Milky Way through Cygnus, observing the Andromeda Galaxy still low in the east, the Coathanger just south of golden Albireo, the globular clusters, M 13 & M 92 high in the western sky in Hercules, and with a steady hand, even watching the Galilean moons of Jupiter change their aspect from hour to hour and from day to day.

High in the eastern sky this time of year lies majestic Cassiopeia, with a river of Milky Way starlight meandering through its brighter luminaries. Below it, I enjoyed an early season view of the Double Cluster in Perseus and the wonderful binocular target centred on Alpha Persei- the dazzling Melotte 20. After our return home to Scotland on Saturday August 8, I ventured out in the wee small hours of Sunday morning (the churches still being shut), to witness a wondrous sight of a waning Gibbous Moon with fiery red Mars perhaps just five degrees away to its east-northeast. Finally, directing my gaze to the Fintry Hills a few kilometres away to the east, I chanced upon the magnificent Pleiades hovering above its summit – a sure sign that autumn is on the way.

The old adage is true: time nor time waits for no man.

Concluding Remarks

A high-quality compact binocular is a most desirable asset, especially if you enjoy the great outdoors and the beauty of the creation. The 8 x 32 format has grown on me over the last few years, where I now consider it as offering the best of both worlds – for day and night time viewing. And while you can pay considerably more for a so-called premium model offered by Leica, Zeiss or Swarovski, I hold onto an altogether different philosophy best expressed in this question: if a binocular delivers excellent optics in a mechanically excellent housing, why pay more than you need? With the Viking Merlin ED 8 x 32, you get what you pay for and will have some money to spare for other things, like a binocular cleaning kit, or a good birding or astronomy book to hone your observing skills.

Is there anything negative about the package I received? Yes: one issue – the nylon padded case. Unlike the less costly Kestrel model, the Merlin 8 x 32  came with a case that is clearly undersized, but you’ll not discover that until you attach the strap! I did find a solution of sorts though. Just store the instrument in a larger case like the one shown below, which is a clamshell design rather like the tiny little clamshell I use for my Leica Trinovid 8 x 20 pocket binos.

The rather under-sized carry case supplied with the Merlin ED 8 x 32 is substantially bettered by a larger clamshell case like that shown in the picture above. Just remember to include a sachet of silica gel desiccant to adsorb any unwanted moisture.

I strongly recommend the Viking Merlin ED 8 x 32 as a high-quality, durable binocular combining the best of portability and optical performance in a very attractive but no-nonsense chassis. Marrying excellent optics with first-rate mechanics, it will give users years of hassle free viewing in all weathers.

Thanks for reading!

Neil English is building a portfolio of binocular reviews in order to write a real-life buyer’s guide on choosing and using binoculars for daylight and nighttime use. If you like his work, you can support him by making a small cash donation (see  the homepage) or by purchasing one of his seven published works.

 

De Fideli.

A Short Commentary on the Christian Standard Bible(CSB).

The Christian Standard Bible(CSB) by Holman.

Preamble

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation.
For everything was created by him,
in heaven and on earth,
the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through him and for him.
 He is before all things,
and by him all things hold together.
He is also the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have
first place in everything.
For God was pleased to have
all his fullness dwell in him,
 and through him to reconcile
everything to himself,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace
through his blood, shed on the cross.

                                                                                             Colossians 1:15-20(CSB)

 

At the end of May 2020, I pulled the trigger on a brand-new Bible translation – the Christian Standard Bible – published by Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee. And owing to the lock-down, I’ve had a chance to read through the majority of the text and would now like to offer my opinions on this fresh, new translation of the Holy Scriptures. If you’re in a hurry, I would heartily recommend this rock-solid translation to you as it offers a unique blend of readability and accuracy that will certainly enrich your walk in the Christian faith. What follows here are some general notes I made of this new translation.They are merely my impressions of the work, so are entirely personal. For more details, please read on.

The Christian Standard Bible(CSB), which was first published in 2017, is a completely updated version of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) which was first published back in 2004. Although I have not personally read through the HCSB, I understand that it is a good and well-respected version of the Bible in the English language, but had some peculiarities that are not found in other modern translations. For example, The HCSB used the Hebrew name for God, known as the Tetragrammaton – YHWH or JHVH – articulated to Yahweh, or Jehovah, more often than the more commonly used term, Lord. The CSB, in contrast, uses the word ‘Lord’ throughout the text. If you don’t like this change, best to stick with the older, HCSB, which, I’m reliably informed, will continue to be published by Holman in the coming years.

The second thing that you’ll notice is that the CSB introduces more gender neutral language than the HCSB. This is quite a common move among many modern English Bible translations, where terms like  ‘brethern’ or ‘brothers’ is replaced by ‘brothers and sisters’. That said, the use of such gender neutral terminology is much more subdued in the CSB than in other popular translations such as the NIV 2011 or the NLT. Personally, I don’t mind the inclusion of such changes if it makes the text more friendly and inclusive, but I do understand that its over-use tries too hard to be politically correct and we should never view the Bible in a way that comports with any human-derived political movements. The Bible is just not PC and should always remain above and beyond petty societal concerns.

That said, using the more inclusive phrase, ‘brothers and sisters’ certainly works well in many places when reading through the Biblical narratives but it is noteworthy that the CSB is more respectful in places where this is simply not necessary – unlike the NIV 2011, for example.

Based on the minority texts, the CSB often refers to God as the ‘Lord of Armies,’ which is a legitimate name for the Creator in that one of His attributes as a truly righteous God is wrath(after all, a truly righteous deity must avenge sin). Here the CSB follows the NLT which uses the related attribution of ‘Lord of Heaven’s Armies.’  Technical words like ‘propitiation’ are replaced by more understandable terms like ‘atonement,’ so readers who like to see such age-old terms as these may be a little disappointed with the CSB in that it follows many of the most popular ‘thought for thought’ translations in this regard. Yet, in other ways, it is more traditional. For example, the CSB retains the rather obscure term ‘selah’ throughout the book of Psalms which many modern versions interpret, rightly or wrongly, as ‘interlude.’

The 100-strong team of inter-denominational Bible scholars, linguists, stylists and proofreaders commissioned to work on the CSB project went to great lengths to use the most precise modern language to maximise the intelligibility of the text that is obvious on every page of the translation. As I’ve explained before, Bible translation philosophy falls into two camps; so-called ‘thought for thought’ and ‘word for word.’ The former emphasises the essential thoughts conveyed in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and koine Greek but at the expense of departing somewhat from the precise wording of these foundational texts. The latter philosophy tries very hard to insert an English word corresponding to each Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek word found in the original manuscripts but, as a result, can make the text more wooden or clunky, with the result that the translation can be more difficult to assimilate. What the CSB translation team claim is that they have found a so-called ‘optimal equivalence,’ which they assert, combines the very best of both. And while the same term conveys the impression of being some sort of precisely defined mathematical rule, it’s really just a way of saying that they made a more concerted effort to keep the accuracy as good as possible whilst retaining the overall flow of text.

An example will help illustrate these principles. Consider 2 Samuel 22:23 in three different translations;

“For all His ordinances were before me,
And as for His statutes, I did not depart from them. (NASB)

 

I have followed all his regulations; I have never abandoned his decrees.(NLT)

 

Indeed, I let all his ordinances guide me
and have not disregarded his statutes. (CSB)

 

Notice that the highly accurate NASB uses words like ‘ordinances’ and ‘statutes,’ both of which are retained in the CSB, but are replaced by ‘regulations’ and ‘decrees’ in the less literal NLT. However, in departing from the phrase, ‘ all His ordinances were before me,’ you do seem to lose a sense of the ‘majesty of language’ in the CSB that more literal translations retain. That said, I’ll leave it up to you to judge which translation best conveys the essential thoughts of the original writers!

I found the Book of Psalms to be the most difficult to navigate in the CSB, simply because I have a strong grounding in more traditional Bible versions such as the NASB, KJV and NKJV. Every Bible reader comes to his own personal favourite of the Psalms and it doesn’t come easy when the wording is changed significantly in a new Bible translation. Consider the much loved Psalm 23 in the NKJV and CSB respectively:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:1-4(NKJV)

The Lord is my shepherd;
I have what I need.
He lets me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside quiet waters.
He renews my life;
he leads me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
 Even when I go through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

Psalm 23:1-4(CSB)

For me, the poetic virtues of this time-honoured Davidic psalm are somewhat subdued in the CSB rendering, making it less engaging and exciting to read. Yet, if I were a beginning Bible reader, I don’t think I’d have any problem with the CSB translation!

 You see, it’s all down to personal taste!

Did the CSB translation committee achieve their goals? I think so!

I would consider the CSB to be more literal than the NIV but less than the NKJV, more smoothly reading than the ESV, but less so than the NLT.

Now, I would like to say a few words about the particular CSB Bible I purchased and why I absolutely love it!

Consider the two Bibles shown below, both published by Holman; on the left is the NKJV and on the right is the CSB.

The Holman NKJV(left) and the CSB(right).

Both Bibles retail for about £20 UK, have a lovely faux leather cover, with the same simple embossed cross. Both have a good, Smyth-sewn binding, gold-gilded page edges and possess a single satin ribbon marker. But now, have a look at the differences in the paper used and the text.

Both the NKJV(left) and the CSB are line-matched, but the text is slightly larger and has less bleed through in the CSB.

Though the NKJV is a 2013 printing, I think you’ll agree that the CSB has a larger font size and has less ghosting than the former. The paper used on the CSB also seems to be of slightly higher quality than the earlier NKJV edition.  Another great feature of the CSB is its neat thumb indices which make finding the right book of the Bible a lot easier and quicker to access a given book and chapter;

The books of the Bible are easier to access courtesy of these neat thumb indices on the CSB Bible. Check out the gorgeous red satin ribbon marker!

The lovely, large print on the Holman CSB makes the text very easy to read, even without eye glasses, yet is still small and light enough to take along with you anywhere!

I would thoroughly recommend these Holman Bibles(CSB or otherwise) to anyone as they offer exceptional quality for a very reasonable price. No doubt, I’ll be checking out more from their new range in the future!

God bless you all and thanks for reading!

Erratum: I came across one printing error in the CSB, which occurs in Zechariah 2:5( see below) page 1264 of the text. However it is correctly presented in the online text. See here.

The word ”fire’ is misprinted ‘fRre’ in Zechariah 2:5

 

 

Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. If you like his work, please consider supporting him by buying one of his books.

Thank you!

De Fideli.

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: Still Going from Strength to Strength!

Celebrating the best of visual astronomical history over four centuries.

Last Updated July 15 2020

Well, since its launch in November 2018, my new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, has now received 25,000 downloads!

A Big Thank You! to all who have supported my work over the years, despite some personal setbacks. 

Latest review form The Observatory Vol 120 (February 2020) reproduced, with permission, here:

Chronicling The Golden Age of Astronomy consists of a preface, acknowledgements, and a table of contents followed by 41 chapters in roughly historical order, and concludes with an appendix and index. This book contains such a wealth of information there is not enough room in this review to comment on everything in detail.
I shall only cover some of the most significant highlights. There are very few
typographical errors, and even though a multitude of diverse topics are covered
they are presented in a very readable style, the transition from one subject to
another flowing smoothly. It should be on everyone’s shelf and provide many
evenings of education and entertainment.
The preface should be read first because it explains the author’s aims.
The first chapter describes Thomas Harriot, the first British telescopist and
a contemporary of both Galileo and Hans Lippershey. Sadly, Lippershey is
not mentioned anywhere in the text. The idea of the telescope spread quickly
through Europe and many people caught on to the technique of its construction.
History grants credit to Hans Lippershey (of the Netherlands) and Galileo
because they were the first to publish the most detailed description of its
design, and especially Galileo who documented his astronomical observations
in detail. Simon Marius of Germany also constructed a telescope and published
his observations, though after Galileo. Galileo openly condemned Marius.
Apparently Galileo had a caustic personality and was antagonistic to several
high church officials. This no doubt contributed to his being brought to trial.
The story of these early inventors (except for Lippershey) and observers is well
described in the first three chapters. Chapter 5, describing the development of
speculum mirrors, tells of more obscure telescope builders and observers and
deserves a careful read. Chapter 7 covers the extensive observations of Thomas
Jefferson in more detail than many of the large number of biographies published
about him. It does not, however, mention Benjamin Banneker, the first black
American astronomer, whom Jefferson hired to do surveying work.
In Chapter 8, which runs to 39 detailed pages, the author goes extensively
into the Herschel dynasty of William, John, and Caroline in a manner that holds
your attention fast and gives you the impression that you are on the scaffold of
William’s great telescopes. Amazingly this writer learned that William Herschel
met the great scientist James Watt, but Watt’s name is not mentioned in the
index. Chapter 9 describes how the Earl of Rosse at Parsonstown followed
Herschel’s exploits and after several years of struggle was able to construct a
72-inch reflector with two interchangeable mirrors. Speculum tarnishes rather
quickly and has to be re-polished. Two mirrors reduce the downtime of the
instrument. The later invention of silver or aluminium on glass eliminated this
problem. Despite the low reflectivity of speculum the large diameter of the
mirror permitted the spiral structure of nearby galaxies to be identified.The 72-
inch remained the largest telescope in the world for many years and prominent
astronomers of the day like George Biddell Airy, Otto Struve, Sir John Herschel,
James Nasmyth, and William Lassell, among others, visited.
In my 60-year-plus pursuit of astronomical literature I attended many events
and casually met several of the people mentioned in this book. Most of them
grew old and passed into history. One, however, became a friend. I ran across
a classified advertisement in an astronomical publication about some lunar
journals for sale. The advertiser was Tom Cave, manufacturer of Cave Astrola
Telescopes and a well-known lunar and planetary observer. I phoned him and
he invited me to pick them up at his home in Long Beach, California. When I
arrived we started to talk about our mutual interest. I listened to his stories far
into the evening.Tom knew everybody that was anybody in astronomy. I wound
up spending many evenings for the next few years listening to his stories until
shortly before his death in 2003. If I had thought to take a tape recorder his
stories would be priceless. If anyone deserves a biography it is Tom Cave.

The other prominent person in this book I had more than a passing
acquaintance with was John Dobson. Dobson was the father of modern sidewalk
astronomy and the inventor of his namesake the Dobsonian telescope, a design
that made it easy to transport and operate a relatively large amateur instrument,
usually eight to twelve inches aperture or larger. His design could have made
him millions but he never patented it. He was not money-orientated. Several
manufacturers cashed in and produced and sold thousands. They dominate
most star parties today. I met John through Gerard Pardeilian who had spent
many years learning how to grind, polish, and figure telescope mirrors. He
ran the weekly Saturday night star party at the Lawrence Hall of Science in
Berkeley, California. I volunteered during the 1970s to assist operating the
telescopes. Gerard, although like many in the optical industry not professionally
educated, had become a master optician and worked at the prestigious Tinsley
Laboratories and later became a master optician at the Lick Observatory optical
shop in Santa Cruz, California. He helped design and construct a massive
spectrograph for the Mt. Palomar 200-inch telescope. On page 628 it states
that the corner of Broderick and Jackson Streets was Dobson’s favourite locale
in San Francisco. The reason was that the sidewalk astronomers were either
renting or given use of a large house at 1600 Baker St. a few blocks away. They
stored and constructed their telescopes in that building and could easily dollie
them to the corner of Broderick, which undoubtedly was in the shade of a
large building.When John had to move I went over with some other people. He
kindly presented me with several boxes of journals and several surplus eyepieces and prisms. Page 629 states that a light bulb was used to test their telescopes.
Gerard informed me that they actually used the reflection from a street light on
a telephone pole insulator a mile away. It acted just like a point source as a star
would. It was then possible to figure their mirrors on cloudy nights.
A detailed reading of some chapters will demonstrate how expert observers
using relatively small apertures could obtain amazing results, far beyond what
most observers today would think possible. This is one of the finest books on the
history of visual astronomy I have ever read. Virtually every sentence conveys a
bit of history, and it is remarkably illustrated with sharp photographs. I can only
suggest that every reader obtain a copy. The writing is excellent. The 653 pages
of text are too short to contain everything of the rich history of 400 years of
observing. Observers and constructors, such as Jack Marling the filter expert, Al
Nagler of eyepiece fame, Charles F. Capen the Mars observer, comet hunters
like Lewis A. Swift, William Robert Brooks, and John Tebbutt among others,
either glossed over or neglected, should be covered in a following volume.
Continue your story Neil English!

Leonard Matula, The Observatory, Vol. 140 (1274), February, 2020

 

A review by Dr. Guillermo Gonzales( Professional Astronomer) and co-author of Privileged Planet with Jay Richards. Posted with the Permission of TouchStone Magazine.

Stargazers’ Log

Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy: A History of Visual Observing from Harriot to Moore
by Neil English

Springer, 2018
(665 pages, $219.99, hardcover)

Reviewed by Guillermo Gonzalez

When I was asked to review Neil English’s new book on the history of visual telescopic observations, I jumped at the opportunity. Before I became a professional astronomer, I spent many nights (and some days) observing the heavens with my 8-inch f/7 Newtonian reflector in my homemade, backyard, roll-off-roof observatory in the suburbs of Miami, Florida. When I look through the eyepiece of a telescope to observe a planet, the moon, or a deep-space object, I feel I am making an intimate connection with the great observers of years past. And I can share in their joy in reading God’s great book not written with words and freely accessible to all with normal vision.

Unfortunately, Chronicling is far from free. Only a relatively few individuals with a strong interest in science history and telescopic observation will want to hand over $200+ for a copy. I would think that school libraries with a substantial science section are the most likely purchasers.

English is eminently qualified to write this book, having been a regular contributor to the British amateur astronomy magazine Astronomy Now for 25 years. Evidence of this can be glimpsed in some of the book’s 41 chapters, wherein he employs his extensive background knowledge to bring helpful insights to bear on historical questions. For example, in 1611, at a meeting with members of the Collegium Romanum, Galileo had the members look through his telescope. Some claimed they could see nothing through the telescope. English notes that this is likely because Galileo’s telescope had a very narrow field of view and required placing the eye just right to see through it (20).

The chapters in Chronicling are arranged roughly chronologically, but each is self-contained. Each is about an astronomer, a telescope, an important published work, or an astronomical phenomenon. Though together they are an eclectic mix, the emphasis in each chapter is almost always on history, often in the form of a biography. The main exception is the chapter on Walter Scott Houston’s “Deep Sky Wonders.” English also interweaves astrophysical concepts throughout, and he even throws in a few equations. At times, a chapter might resemble a college-level introductory textbook on astronomy.

Still, the book is an easy read and includes many illustrations. English has a gift for presenting history in an engaging way. He makes all sorts of connections between the subject of a given chapter and that person’s contemporaries.

Men of Faith

Why would a reader of Touchstone be interested in this book? I can give several reasons, some of which are obvious. For instance, there’s the “Galileo Affair.” English writes that “the mythologized view of Galileo standing for truth and reason versus religion and superstition of the Roman Catholic Church is not at all accurate” (20). Historians of science know what science popularizers don’t, and English has clearly read the former’s books (which he lists at the end of the chapter). His lengthy chapter on Galileo is an excellent summary of modern scholarship.

Those interested in topics related to science and faith will not be disappointed. From the very first chapter, English does not shy away from discussing the religious beliefs of the telescopists. For instance, Thomas Harriot actually turned his telescope towards the heavens before Galileo did. But how many atheist–narrated TV documentaries on astronomy would also mention that Harriot translated the Lord’s Prayer into the Algonquin language? (8).

In fact, most of the telescopists of the Golden Age of Astronomy were Christians. A number were Jesuit priests, such as Christoph Scheiner (Chapter 1) and Angelo Secchi, the “father of modern astrophysics” (Chapter 22). Several were “clerical astronomers”: William Dawes (Chapter 14), Thomas Webb (Chapter 15), and Theodore Philips (Chapter 30). Of Webb, English writes,

Despite the growing power of scientific naturalism with the later Victorian society, Webb couched everything, with firmness and gentleness, in terms of the Biblical God he believed in. Seen in this light, his astronomical writings, and his devotion to exploring the wonders of Creation with his telescopes, were more like prayers than anything else.

As if it even has to be said (and sadly it does), the evidence is clear that having a strong Christian faith does not hinder a person from being a successful scientist. On the contrary, the great works of many of the telescopists English describes are testimonies to the motivating influence of their faith.

To the believer, this should not come as a surprise. More than other aspects of the Creation, the starry heavens seem to evoke from us a sense of the divine. The Psalmist wrote,

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)

Kepler voiced eloquently what other great astronomers must have believed, that he saw himself as a kind of “priest of God” at the pulpit, reading the “book of nature” as an act of worship, to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”

A Rare Sneak Past the Censors

What did catch me off guard were some of English’s comments on Darwinism. For instance, when commenting on Percival Lowell’s ideas about life on Mars, English writes, “To begin with, scientists were gloriously unaware just how complex even the simplest forms of cellular life were during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . Lowell, like Darwin, thought the cell to be merely composed of blobs of protoplasm” (386). Later, English comments thus on Lowell’s beliefs about life beyond Earth: “Many scientists anticipate that life will be commonplace in the galaxy, but this is based on Darwinian reasoning. However, there are many scientists who now doubt the Darwinian paradigm and do not expect life to be commonplace, as has been widely believed in the past” (397). English is qualified to comment on Darwinism, as he has a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

I agree with English’s stance on Darwinism, but what surprised me was finding his comment in a book published by Springer. The editor must have been asleep at the keyboard! It also is interesting that English lists Hugh Ross’s book, Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (Baker, 2016), in the sources to the Percival Lowell chapter. He lists another of Ross’s books in the sources to the chapter on Clyde Tombaugh (Chapter 32). We are in a sad state when the censorship of certain scientific ideas in the public square has become so common that we feel we must jump up and cheer when someone boldly sneaks a few “forbidden” thoughts past the censors.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in amateur and professional telescopic astronomy, the history of science, and the relations between science and faith. 

 

British Astronomical Association(BAA) Review by Archivist, John Chuter

 

Cloudy Nights Review

 

Stargazer’s Lounge Review

 

Endorsements:

“This is an excellent book and will complement Ashbrook’s Astronomical Scrapbook and therefore have wide appeal to both amateur and professional astronomers.”
Wayne Orchiston, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Southern Queensland.

 

New Citation here

 

To Be Continued……………………….

 

De Fideli.