A Brief Look at a Mid-20th Century Classic: “The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy.”

Packed full of beautiful drawings: the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy(1966 edition).

As I’ve explained many times before, I value the printed word. When I’m looking for information, I generally lean towards authors that have a proven track record in a given discipline, rather than spending hundreds of hours on an online forum to find specific answers to questions. These are and have always been my ‘authorities’. By carefully studying the astronomical literature of the past, I have discovered many facts that the modern forum user has not known, let alone considered. Many of these discoveries are presented in my new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy. That said, knowledge is never fixed; there is always something new to learn! And so, I have turned to what I consider to be a classic astronomy text of the mid-20th century; The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy, to get a better insight into what people of science had learned in the human generation immediately preceding my own.

The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy first came off the printing press back in 1959, in a unique collaboration between the French professional astronomer, Gérard Henri de Vaucouleurs (1918–1995) and his compatriot, the distinguished amateur astronomer and artist, Lucien Rudaux(1874-1947). It was a match made in heaven, for this superb fusion of art and science enjoyed a number of reprintings, first in 1962 and finally in 1966. The edition I discuss here was published in 1966, which included an introduction written by the distinguished American astronomer, Fred L. Whipple(1906-2004) of comet fame.

The Title Page.

My personal copy of this work was acquired somewhat serendipitously, when, during my year at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, studying for my Post-Graduate Certificate in Physics Education(2000-2001), I was offered this book after it was discontinued by the University library. What’s more, it was going free to a good home! How could I refuse? What I got was a beautiful, large tome, with a durable and strong cloth-over-board cover, and in excellent general condition.Neat!

The beautiful, cloth-over board cover of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy.

The book was conceived of right at the beginning of the space age, when Mankind triumphantly declared his conquest of outer space. No longer dependent on idle speculation, the authors aimed to show the reader that modern astronomical science had finally brought the heavens down to Earth. No longer were the stars, galaxies, planets and their Moons pie in the sky abstractions; these were places every bit as real as the ground beneath our feet!

Imagine my surprise when I first started combing through its thick pages only to discover that this work was not, in fact, an encyclopedia, at least in the normal sense of the word! The contents page ought to have alerted me to this;

The title page.

The contents page reveals the non-encyclopedic nature of the work.

Instead, the work is divided into 4 sections or ‘books,’ which include;

Book I: The Splendour of the Heavens

Book II: The Empire of the Sun

Book III: The Realm of the Stars

Book IV: Astronomical Instruments and Techniques

Book I: The Splendour of the Heavens

Book I, which has two chapters, deals with the elements of physical astronomy and is wonderfully illustrated throughout. It provides the reader with a basic, albeit solid grounding in how the sky works. This is classical knowledge, as true today as the day it was penned. Take a look at some of the drawings and diagrams used to illustrate these chapters:

The Earth from space.

A rapidly disappearing vista; the majesty of the Milky Way from a dark country site.

Some of the conic sections; the circle, ellipse and parabola.

Kepler’s second law of planetary motion, illustrating the concept of equal areas in equal times.

The realm of the galaxies.

Book II Empire of the Sun

Many classic stories are recounted in the text, including the once seriously considered planet Vulcan, thought to orbit the Sun closer in than Mercury. There is even a diagram showing the hypothetical orbit as envisioned by the great French astronomer, Urbain Le Verrier(1811-1877).

The hypothetical orbit of the planet Vulcan( denoted by a ‘V’) as imagined by Le Verrier.

We are prone to forget that the Earth is a planet in its own right but the Larousse Encyclopedia we get an exquisite overview of the many and various meteorological phenomena that make our world so spectacular.

Check out this page showing the kinds of clouds that grace the Earth’s atmosphere at various altitudes;

Earth’s cloud systems.

Moving on to our nearest neighbour in space, the Larousse excels with some fine, high- resolution images of the lunar regolith. What may surprise a few readers is that some very detailed lunar images were made using the 100-inch Hooker reflector atop Mount Wilson. This giant eye on the sky is far more famous for the seminal contributions it made to cosmology, especially Edwin Hubble’s discovery that the Universe is expanding. The photographs really don’t do proper justice to the actual quality of the images reproduced in the work, but will nonetheless serve our purposes here;

The first quarter Moon as imaged by the 100-inch reflector on Mount Wilson.

An amazingly detailed image of the Lunar Apennines, the great crater Copernicus, Caucasus and the Lunar Alps, as photographed by the 100-inch Hooker reflector.

The authors are unusually aware of perspective. For example, have a look at this figure, which shows the size of the British Isles in comparison to the size of the Moon.

An amusing lesson in scale: the Britsih Isles superimposed on the full Moon.

Chronicling also features a detailed chapter on the Great Meudon Refractor, located just outside Paris, which once represented the brain and glory of late 19th and early 20th century French astronomical science. The reader of Larousse will be in for quite a treat in the chapter covering the planets, as many of the exquisite drawings came directly from the French tradition. As well as drawings made by Rudaux, who was inspired by the eccentric French astronomer, Camille Flammarion(1842-1925) there are also exquisite renderings from de Vaucouleurs, who made use of a fine 8 inch classical refractor based at Houga Observatory(founded in 1933 by the amateur astronomer and electrical engineer, Julien Peridier), France, during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Many other planetary sketches were made by distinguished French observers such as Bernard Lyot,  H. Camichel and M. Gentili, making use of a superb 15 inch refractor at the Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees.This Observatory, which is still alive and well, attracts some of the finest planetary imagers in the world (including the UK’s Damien Peach) who have produced some of the best CCD images of the major planets yet taken from the Earth, owing to the superb astronomical seeing manifested at this high-altitude site.

The relative sizes of the planets as seen through the telescope.

It is clear that while great strides had been made in the improvement of astronomical photography of the planets since the early 20th century, they were still not the equal of visual drawings made by trained observers. Larousse reflects this situation most convincingly.

Elusive markings on little planet Mercury.

Some of the drawings of the Cytherean disk featured in Larousse certainly display atmospheric details that we would consider largely illusory today.

Somewhat dubious atmospheric features of Venus.

The section on the planet Mars is partcularly interesting. As the drawings made in 1941 reveal below, even professsional astronomers like de Vaucouleurs were still actively engaged in visual observations;

A series of Martian disk drawings made by de Vaucouleurs in 1941 using an 8 inch refractor at Houga Observatory.

That such work was still being conducted during a time when the Nazis occupied France is all the more remarkable!

Part of the training of these visual observers involved recording detail from artificial Martian disks, such as the one illustrated below. The image on the top left represents a close up of an articial disk, whereas the image on the top left is a photograph of the same artificial disk taken at the same resolution as the human eye with the telescope.The bottom two images represent sketches of the artificial disk as recorded by two separate observers. One can see that while good objective agreement can be achieved with such tranining, there still exists significant inter-individual differences between the details recorded.

The planetary observers of the era used articial disks to hone their visual skills.

By the mid-20th century, astronomers were beginning to use different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to explore the Martian orb. The figure below shows two such images; one in infrared(right) and the other at UV wavelengths(left), captured by the astronomers at the Lick Observatory, USA.

Mars as imaged in the ultraviolet( left) and infrared(right).

Both the chapters on the Moon and Mars have discussions on whether life might have or could still exist on these bodies. Predictably, the fabled Martian canals are discussed at some length and the conclusions drawn by the authors seem to still hold a candle for there being life on the Red Planet. Thus, even by the mid-20th century, some planetary observers were still seriously entertaining such outlandish ideas. Of course, this was a time when living creatures were considered to be very much part of the natural order, as “inevitable” as sand grains, rocks and suns; a view that is being rapidly overturned today by the unceasing march of science.

The fabled Martian canals by Douglass(Lowell Observatory).

Still, the fecund imaginings of Rudaux are also on display in the Martian chapter. Decades before any spacecraft landed on the Red Planet, he produced an uncannily real depiction of the Sun about to set beneath the Martian horizon;

Sunset on the Red Planet. Note its smaller size in comparison to a terrestrial sunset.

From Mars, the authors continue on to discuss the fascinating asteroid belt before venturing on to my favourite world; Jupiter. As the drawings in the opening image of this blog reveal, this world shows up a wealth of detail to the keen telescopist armed with an instrument of modest aperture. The authors do a superb job of capturing the dynamism of this gas giant in all its glory:

Things change fast on mighty Jove; as these drawings reveal, taken just one hour apart.

The French planetary astronomers of this era spent a considerable amount of time learning about the nature of the four giant satellites that circle Jupiter, recording with great attention to detail, many of their many kinematic interactions, particularly transits and eclipses( mutual or otherwise);

Drawings showing some fascinating aspects of Jupiter’s large satellite system.

On the best nights of astronomical seeing, the French planetary astronomers made significant strides in recording many of the main albedo features of the Galilean satellites. The reader will note that these visual observations are exceedingly difficult to conduct, owing to the tiny angular diameters they subtend, requiring large aperture, ultra-high magnifications and good air in equal measure to do any justice to them;

Full disk drawings of the Galilean satellites as recorded by Eugene M. Antoniadi(top plate) using the 33-inch Meudon refractor, and those made by Lyot, Camichel and Gentili employing instruments at the Pic Du Midi Observatory(bottom plate).

The section on Saturn is equally engaging, with beautiful artwork showing its majestic features:

A wonderful full-colour drawing of Saturn showing its atmospheric features and majestic ring system.

It was only in the 1930s and 40s that astronomers were beginning to divine the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the outer planets and their satellites. Larousse presents good spectral data of Saturn’s mysterious satellite, Titan, as recorded by the Dutch-American astronomer, Gerard P. Kuiper, showing for the first time that it contained several simple hydrocarbons, such as methane and ethane.

When it comes to the outermost worlds in our solar system, considerable uncertainty was still the rule rather than the exception. For example, planetary astronomers were very unsure as to the size of Pluto, as evidenced by the following illustration:

By the mid-20th century, our scientfic knowledge of Pluto was very uncertain, including its estimated size. Orb C is closest to the modern accepted size.

We now know that Pluto, archetypal of a new class of bodies known as dwarf planets, has a surface area slightly less than half that of our own Moon.

After presenting an excellent overview of comets, Larousse provides an equally fascinating overview of meteors and meteorites; pieces of heaven that end their lives in Earth space:

Artistic rendition of the radiant of a spectacular meteor storm occurring on the night of October 9 1933.

Moving on to discuss our star, the Sun, Larousse provides a detailed exposition of our knowledge of the Sun and shows that solar scientists had developed technologies that enabled them to see phenomena that hitherto were quite invisible to human eyes.

For example, Larousse presents a remarkable sequence of photographs showing the evolution of a solar prominence:

A sequence of solar prominences as recorded on June 18 1929.

It even shows how astronomers were using narrow band imaging techniques to capture solar images at wavelengths centred on the Calcium K line and the Hydrogen alpha line:

Solar astronomers at Meudon Observatory were developing narrow band imaging techniques. Left hand column represents Calcium K line spectrograms, while the right hand column shows a sequence of H alpha images.

Indeed, these narrowband imaging techniques are now used by amateur solar astronomers across the world.

Book III: The Realm of the Stars

This section of the encyclopedia discusses the stars as suns. And while it is not possible to gain a full knowledge of stellar physics without treating it mathematically, the authors do a great job of explaining difficult physical phenomena in layman’s terms. The section on the nuclear physics of stellar interiors is very impressively conveyed in this volume. But there are also wonderful nuggets of information that you only infrequently encounter in other texts. For example, Larousse presents a very useful table showing the degree to which starlight is extinguished as a function of altitude;

The degree of attenuation in stellar brightness as a function of altitude.

One consequence of this attenuation of stellar brightness as altitude decreases is that we can never experience the full glory of bright stars or deep sky objects if  they remain close to the horizon. From my own location at 56 degrees north latitude, the maximum elevation of the celestial equator will be 90-56 = 34 degrees. Now, consider the bright star Sirius, whose declination is ~ -17 degrees, its maximum altitude above my southern horizon is 34 +(-17) = 17 degrees. From the table above, we see that the apparent brightness of Sirius will be a full half magnitude lower than it would appear at altitudes above 45 degrees or so. This is also true of deep sky objects. For instance, I became acutely aware of this effect as I followed the bright globular cluster M13 with my 12″ f/5 Dob during late March and much of April. Before midnight, the view was rather disappointing as the cluster was then at a low altitude in the east. I would often wait until the wee small hours of the morning to let the cluster rise as high as possible in the sky in order to achieve the best possible view. The change in the cluster’s appearance was quite striking from hour to hour but it was definitely worth the wait!

After discussing the stars, their brightness, and distribution across the heavens, Larousse presents excellent chapters on both variable and multiple stars systems that are as valid today as they were when first written. Some of the most visually stunning, colour contrast binary systems are presented in a beautiful colour plate shown below:

Beautiful artistic renderings of some of the skies most celebrated double stars.

After discussing the stars, the authors move on to consider the Milky Way Galaxy as a whole, as well as the vast reaches of intergalactic space. Here, yet again, we are presented with stunning black & white images of a variety of objects both within and far beyond our own ‘Island Universe’;

The Great Globular Cluster M 13, in Hercules as photographed by the 60-inch reflector atop Mount Wilson in 1910. The exposure was made over several nights in June and the resulting star count amounted to 40,520 !

The 20th century wrought new technologies that helped astronomers delineate the fine details of our own galaxy’s spiral arms. Larousse presents early data collated by astronomers using the 21cm microwave hydogen emission line:

Tracing the nearby structure of the Milky Way’s spiral arms centered on the Sun((marked with an x) using the hydrogen 21cm microwave emission line.

In this regard, the pioneering work of the Dutch astronomer, Dr. Jan Oort(1900-1992), of Leiden Observatory, is discussed in detail.

Larousse presents many stunning monchrome images of celebrated galaxies like this one of M 51, the famous Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici:

M51 and its companion galaxy, as photographed by the 100 inch Hooker reflector atop Mount Wilson. a 3 hour exposure made on the evening of May 15 1926.

By the mid-20th century, astronomers had discovered that the Universe was in a state of expansion with many more distance measurements of galaxies added to Edwin Hubble’s pioneering list. This helped astronomers refine the value of the Hubble constant (Ho), the reciprocal of which provided the age of the Universe. Back then, of course, there was still considerable uncertainty regarding the precise age of the cosmos but Larousse entertains timescales of the order of 5 billion years, in agreement with upper bounds established by the half lives of the most long-lived radionuclides.

In a chapter entitled Past and Future, the authors discuss the concept of stellar and galactic evolution in more or less its modern sense of the word. It also introduces some basic cosmology.

Stellar evolution as portaryed by a Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram.

There is no mention of dark energy or dark matter, of course, since these were not postulated at the time. Still, the reader can gain a fairly accurate education on some of the big questions astronomers and cosmologists were asking in the middle of the 20th century.

Book IV: Astronomical Instruments and Techniques

In this, the last section of Larousse, we learn of the magnificent ingenuity of scientists and engineers of yesteryear in designing what was then, state-of-the-art astronomical equipment. The encyclopedia is lavishly illustrated with wonderful old photos of classic telescopes including some giant ones, such as the 100-inch Hooker reflector on Mount Wilson and the venerable 40-inch Clark refractor at Yerkes Observatory, the latter of which I discuss in relation to double stars (Aitken) and planetary observing(E.E. Barnard)  in Chronicling;

The wonderful 100-inch Hooker reflector while in active service. It has now been retired from professional use.

The largest refractor ever built; the 40-inch Clark at Yerkes Observatory.

This section discusses the details of using old photographic emulsions, micrometers, photometers and many other scientific instruments that were part of the workanight instrumentation of the pros of that era. Computers were still in their infancy in those days and so their users still had to resort to doing much of their work by hand.

The business end of a 15-inch refractor used for double star mensuration.

The basic principles of radio astronomy is covered at the end of Larousse, including an early picture of Jodrell Bank Observatory;

The gigantic steerable radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, Manchester, UK, which was newly dedicated in 1945. This author reckons Sir Bernard Lovell is the character seen seated in the control room(top image).

Well, I hope you enjoyed this brief overview of a now classic text. I for one feel very privileged to have acquired it both for educational and sentimental reasons. Larousse is part of our shared astronomical heritage, and will continue to take a good place in my own ibrary. And while modern re-prints are available, it’s nice to have an original copy.

They certainly don’t make tomes like this any more!

Thanks for reading.


If you like this work, please support me by considering my new book on the history of our science over four centuries, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.


De Fideli.

Exploring Double Stars of Varying Difficulty During Summer Twilight.

The Twilit skies of central Scotland in June, looking north. Image captured at 27 minutes past local midnight on June 11 2019.

June 19 2019

June is a month that usually brings mixed blessings here in Scotland. On the one hand, I have more leisure time but it also accompanies nights that never quite get dark. Indeed, any where north of the midlands, true darkness never returns until the first week in August. ’tis the season of twilight.

And while nighttime temperatures are very mild, they are often accompanied by legion midge flies which can be a source of great annoyance, especially on still, humid nights.

To add insult to injury, these last several weeks have not been good for observing,  with endless low-pressure weather systems which have brought thick rain clouds to our shores. I lay at least part of the blame at the feet of that fiery furnace at the centre of the solar system. Our star is bereft of spots. Indeed, I have not recorded a single sunspot with my 20 x 60 binocular since the afternoon of May 17 last!

But despite these drawbacks, I have savoured the odd clear night, like the one I encountered on the evening of June 9/10 last, where I carried out a number of observations of double and multiple stars with my tried and trusted 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector, with which I have enjoyed great success, owing to its excellent optics and superior light gathering power to any other grab ‘n’ go telescope I have had the pleasure of using in past years.

Plotina: my wonderful grab ‘n’ go companion under the stars.

A nefarious forum individual, hell-bent on de-railing my findings with this particular telescope(remember Mr. Bad Smell?) has made the claim that such a telescope cannot act as a true grab ‘n’ go instrument since it takes a bit of time to acclimate to ambient temperatures. But it doesn’t take more than a moment’s reflection(excuse the pun) to counter that claim. If there are large temperature differentials between inside and outside, the solution is to begin observing at lower powers and gradually increase the power as the telescope nears full equilibration.


This has been my custom any time some acclimation is required, especially if I’m in a hurry, such as on cold, winter nights. That said, during the mild nights of summer, little or no acclimation is needed; certainly no more than 15 or 20 minutes for even the most demanding of targets.

Here I wish to show readers how you can go from low-power, low-resolution targets to higher-power, higher-resolution targets simply by choosing the order with which those systems are examined!

Polaris A & B: My first target is easy and beautiful; 2nd magnitude Pole Star, the closest Cepheid varibale star to our solar system, which has a delightful companion easily picked up in twilight with the 130mm f/5. With a power of 118x, Polaris B is seen as an 8th magnitude spark wide away from its primary.

Albireo: This lovely colour-contrast double is easily tracked down in twilight high in the eastern sky around midnight in the beak of the Celestial Swan. Any small telescope presents this stellar duo very well, but I’m very grateful for the increased light gathering power of this reflector which renders their colours especially vividly; a soft marmalade orange primary and a royal blue secondary. 118x frames the system very well, darkening the sky sufficiently enough to make the observation worthwhile.

O^1 Cygni: This comely system is a famous binocular double in Cygnus, but its majesty is greatly increased with the power of a telescope. Like a more widely spaced version of Albireo,  the 130mm Newtonian at 118x frames a stellar trio, consisting of an orange, magnitde + 3.8 primary and turquoise secondary a full magnitide fainter. In addition, the telescope easily picks up a closer 7th magnitude blue companion close by the ochre primary.

Cor Caroli: Yet another easy target for small backyard telescopes, Cor Caroli, the brightest luminary of Canes Venatici, is a stunning sight in the 5.1-inch Newtonian at 118x. Presenting with similar hues (white) to my eye, the brighter component shines at magnitude + 2.9, whereas the secondary shines more feebly at +5.9 wide away. Both stars lie about 115 light years from the solar system.

Epsilon 1&2 Lyrae: Moving up to a more challenging system, we take a visit to Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae, easily found near the bright blue-white luminary, Vega, in Lyra. Charging the telescope with a power of 270x, the two stars seen in my 6 x 30 finder ‘scope are transformed into a quartet of suns, giving rise to its more famous name, the Double Double. The generous light gathering power of the 130mm Newtonian allows me to easily make out subtle colour differences between these stars, with each pair presenting as nearly at right angles to each other. While some ar pure white, another is creamy and yet another is lemon tinted.

Delta Cygni: One of my favourite summer doubles, the 130mm f/5 makes light work of this system at 270x. The intensely blue-white primary( magnitude +2.9) presents with a  close in companion of greatly reduced glory( +6.3). It is a fine sight whenever the sky is tranquil. Both stars orbit their barycentre every 900 years.

Pi Aquilae: More challenging still is this very faint pair of white stars (both magnitide 6+), best visited later in the vigil when they rise a little higher in the eastern sky during June evenings. Separated by 1.5″ I find they are best seen by charging the telescope with very high powers. On this occasion I got particualrly good results at 405x (using a 4.8mm T1 Nagler and 3x Meade Barlow). Fainter, near-equal pairs are definitely more challenging than their brighter counterparts, especially during strong summer twilight.

25 Canum Venaticorum: This challenging system was kindly brought to my attention by Welsh amateur astronomer, Rob Nurse, a few weeks back. The primary shines at magnitude +4.98, while the secondary is considerably fainter, at magnitude + 6.95, but their separation is only 1.7″. That sounded like quite a challenge, at least on paper, but once I learned how to track it down in the western sky around local midnight, I was delighted to see that the 130mm f/5 Newtonian handled this system quite well at powers of 354x and 405x. Testing my visual skills, I noted the orientation of the secondary relative to its primary, which was almost exactly due east. Then, when I checked with the position angle data Nurse provided me, I was deligted to see that the secondary was indeed located almost due east(094 degrees) of the primary.

I made a quick pencil sketch(shown below) of all these systems as seen in the little Newtonian telescope. Vigil ended at 00:15UT

Simple pencil sketeches of the systems examined on the night of June 9/10 2019 with a 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector. All systems were examined on an undriven Vixen Porta II mount, equipped with slow motion controls on both axes.

Well, I hope that this short blog will encourage you to go outside and observe the twilit heavens. With a liitle resourcefulness, you can always find something interesting and beautiful to observe.

Clear skies and thanks for reading.


Neil English has penned several hundred published articles on observational astronomy and telescope testing over the last 25 years. He is also the author of seven books on telescopes, astronomical history and space science.




De Fideli.

Investigating the Jet Stream

but test everything; hold fast what is good.

                                                                           1 Thessalonians 5:21


My Local Weather


Jet Stream Data

Introduction:  One of the statements that is oft quoted by observers, particularly in the UK, is that the meteorological phenomenon known as the Jet Stream seriously affects the quality of high resolution telescopic targets. I have decided to investigate these claims to determine to what extent they are true or not, as the case may be. These data will also provide the reader with an idea of the frequency of nights that are available for this kind of testing over the time period the study is to be conducted.

Method: For simplicity, I shall confine my studies to just four double stars that have long been considered reasonably tricky targets for telescopists. To begin with, my targets will include systems of varying difficulty, ranging from 2.5″ to 1.5″ separation, and the aim is to establish whether or not I can resolve the components at high magnification. These systems include *:

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae

Epsilon Bootis

Delta Cygni

Pi Aquilae

* These systems were chosen for their easy location in my current skies, but may be subject to change as the season(s) progress.

Viewers are warmy welcomed to conduct their own set of observations to compare and contrast results in due course.

Instrument Choice & Magnifications Employed:

The 130mm f/5 Newtonian telescope used in the present investigation.


A high-performance 130mm (5.1″) f/5 Newtonian reflector was employed to investigate the effects of this phenomenon, as this is an aperture regularly quoted as being sensitive to the vagaries of the atmosphere. Magnifications employed were 260x or 354x (they can however be resolved with less power). The instrument at all times was adequately acclimated to ambient temperatures and care was taken to ensure good collimation of the optical train. No cooling fans used on any of my instruments.


Date: August 17 2018

Time: 21:20 to 21:35 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Mild, 14C, very breezy, mostly cloudy with occasional clear spells, frequent light drizzle.

Observations: Power employed at the telescope 354x

Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae: all four components cleanly resolved.

Delta Cygni: Faint companion clearly observed during calmer moments

Epsilon Bootis: Both components clearly resolved during calmer moments.

Pi Aquilae: Slightly mushier view, but both components resolved momentarily during calmer spells.

Truth seeking.


Date: August 19 2018

Time: 20:30 – 21:50 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland.

Conditions: Mild, 13C, mostly cloudy and damp all day but a clear spell occurred during the times stated above, no wind, heavy dew at end of vigil.

Observations: Seeing excellent this evening (Antoniadi I-II); textbook perfect images of all four test systems at 354x and 260x.

Nota bene: A 12″ f/5 Newtonian was also fielded to test collimation techniques and I was greeted with a magnificent split of Lambda Cygni (0.94″) at 663X. Little in the way of turbulence experienced even at these ultra-high powers. Did not test this system on the 130mm f/5.

Clouded up again shortly before 11pm local time, when the vigil was ended.

Date: August 22 2018

Time: 23:30-40 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Very mild (15C), breezy, predominantly cloudy with some heavy rain showers interspersed by some brief, patchy clearings.

Observations: Just two test systems examined tonight owing to extremely limited accessibility; Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae and Delta Cygni. Both resolved well at 260x.


Date: August 22 2018

Time: 21:00-21:25UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions; partially cloudy, brisk southwesterly wind, bright Gibbous Moon culminating in the south, +10C, rather cool, transparency poor away from zenith.

Observations: The telescope was uncapped and aimed straight into the prevailing SW wind, as is my custom.

All four systems well resolved at 354x, although visibility of Pi Aql was poor owing to thin cloud covering.


Date: August 23 2018

Time: 20:30-45 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Moved well south of Scotland

Conditions: Mostly clear this evening, after enduring heavy showers all day; cool, 10C, fresh westerly breeze, good transparency.

Observations:  All four test systems beautifully resolved this evening (seeing Ant II) at 354x. Just slightly more turbulent than the excellent night of August 19 last.


Date: August 24 2018

Time: 20:30-45 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Just west of my observing site.

Conditions: Almost a carbon copy of last night, light westerly winds, cool (9C), good transparency and almost no cloud cover. Very low full Moon in south-southeast.

Observations: All four system resolved at 260x, but less well at 354x owing to slightly deteriorated seeing ( II-III). Delta Cygni seems especially sensitive to seeing.

Nota bene: Epsilon Bootis now sinking fast into the western sky. This test system will soon be replaced by a tougher target, located higher up in my skies; Mu Cygni.

A capital telescope.


Date: August 25 2018

Time: 20:20-21:00 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Right over Scotland.

Conditions: Very hazy, calm, poor transparency, cool (9C), seeing excellent (I-II)

Observations: Just three of the four systems examined tonight owing to very poor transparency. Only Pi Aquilae could not be examined. All three were beautifully resolved at 354x.


Date: August 26 2018

Time: 22:30-23:05 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Well south of Scotland.

Conditions: After a day of heavy rain, the skies cleared partially around 11pm local time. Fresh westerly breeze, fairly mild (12C), bright full Moon low in the south.

Observations: Mu Cygni observed instead of Epsilon Bootis owing to the latter’s sinking low into the western sky at the rather late time the observations were made.

Three systems well resolved ( Mu Cygni, Pi Aquliae and Epsilon 1 & 2 Lyrae) in only fair seeing, with Delta Cygni B only spotted sporadically in moments of better seeing. This system is very sensitive to atmospheric turbulence due to a large magnitude difference between components, as opposed to their angular separation. 260x used throughout.

Nota bene: Readers will take note of the frequency of observations thus far made.

Date: August 27 2018

Time: 20:30-21:05 UT

Location of Jet Stream: West of the Scottish mainland.

Conditions: Mostly cloudy, mild, 13C, light westerly breeze.

Observations: I took advantage of a few brief clear spells this evening to target my systems(including Epsilon Bootis). Seeing very good despite the cloud cover (II). All four systems easily resolved tonight at both 354x and 260x.

Date: August 29 2018

Time: 20:25-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Mostly clear, occasional light shower, cool (11C), light westerly breeze, seeing and transparencyvery good (II).

Observations: Mu Cygni now replaces Epsilon Bootis.

All systems very cleanly resolved at 354x and 260x.

Nb. All systems also beautifully resolved in a 12″ f/5 Newtonian at 277x, set up alongside the 130mm f/5.


Date: August 30 2018

Time: 20:45- 21:00 UT

Location of the Jet Stream:  Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Partially cloudy with some good clear spells, cool (9C), very little breeze.

Observations: Seeing good tonight (II). All  four systems nicely resolved at 260x and 354x.

Note added in proof: Local seeing deteriorated (III-IV) somewhat between 21:00 and 22:00 UT, so much so that Delta Cygni B could no longer be seen.


Date: 31 August 2018

Time: 20:30-22:00UT

Location of Jet Stream: North of the British Isles

Conditions: Partly cloudy and becoming progressively more hazy as the vigil progressed. Mild, 12C, very light westerly breeze.

Observations: Seeing only fair this evning (II-III), all four systems resolved at 260x and 354x, though Delta Cygni B visibility was variable.


Date: September 1 2018

Time: 20:30-50UT

Location of Jet Stream: to the northwest of the Scottish Mainland.

Conditions: Partially clear, very mild (16C), light southerly breeze, good transparency.

Observations: Seeing quite good (II).  All four systems resolved at 260x and even better delineated at 354x under these clement conditions.


Date: September 4 2018

Time: 19:55-20:20UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Cool (10C), mostly clear, light westerly breeze, good transparency.

Observations: Seeing very good (II).  All four test systems well resolved at 260x and 354x this evening.


Date: September 5 2018

Time: 20:35-20:55UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Very unsettled with frequent squally rain showers driven in by fresh westerly winds. Good clear spells appearing between showers. Transparency very good. 12C

Observations: All four test systems resolved under good seeing conditions (II) at 260x and 354x.


Date: September 6 2018

Time: 20:00-25 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: Cool (8C), little in the way of a breeze, mostly clear, excellent transparency.

Observations: Seeing good (II). All four test systems well resolved at 260x and 354x.


Date: September 7 2018

Time: 20:25-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland.

Conditions: A capital evening in the glen; 11C, good clear sky, brisk westerly breeze, excellent transparency.

Observations: Seeing very good (I-II).  All four test systems beautifully resolved in the 130mm f/5 using powers of 260x and 354x

Nota bene:

Know thine history!

Any serious student of the history of astronomy will likely be acquainted with the early work of Sir William Herschel (Bath, southwest England), who employed extremely high powers (up to 2000x usually but actually he went as high as 6,000x on occasion) productively in his fine 6.3-inch Newtonian reflector with its speculum metal mirrors. The high powers employed by this author are thus fairly modest in comparison to those used by his great predecessor. Check out the author’s new book; Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, due out in October/November 2018, for more details.

Note added in proof:

With the excellent conditions maintained well after midnight, I ventured out at about 00:00 UT,  September 8, and noted Andromeda had attained a decent altitude in the eastern sky. At 00:10UT I trained the 130mm f/5 Newtonian on 36 Andromedae for the first time this season and charged the instrument with a power of 406x. Carefully focusing, I was treated to a textbook-perfect split of the 6th magnitude Dawes classic pair that are ~1.0″ apart. It was very easy on this clement  night. The pair look decidely yellow in the little Newtonian reflector. I made a sketch of their orientation relative to the drift of the field; shown below.

36 Andromedae as seen in the wee small hours of September 8 2018 through the author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector, power 406x.


If you have a well collimated 130P kicking about why not give this system a try over the coming weeks?


Date: September 9 2018

Time: 21:10-25UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Frequent heavy showers driven in from the Atlantic with strong gusts, 11C, some intermittent clear spells.

Observations: Seeing III. 3 systems fairly well resolved this evening. Delta Cygni B only seen intermittently. Magnification held at 260x owing to blustery conditions.

Date: September 12 2018

Time: 00:10-20UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Very wet, windy with some sporadic clear spells, good transparency once the clouds move out of the way. 10C.

Observations: Seeing (II-III). Just three systems examined tonight; the exception being Pi Aquliae, which was not in a suitable position to observe. All three were well resolved at 260x. Did not attempt 354x owing to prevailing blustery conditions.


Date: September 12 2018

Time: 21:40-55 UT

Location of Jet Stream: Not over Scotland

Conditions: Still unsettled, blustery light drizzle and mostly cloudy with some clear spells. 10C.

Observations: Seeing (III), three systems resolved well, Delta Cygni B not seen cleanly at 260x under these conditions.


Date: September 14 2018

Time: 19:30-50UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland.

Conditions: Rather cool, (9C), very little breeze, rain cleared to give a calm, clear sky.

Observations: Seeing II. All four systems cleanly resolved at 260x and 354x


Date: September 16 2018

Time: 19:20-40UT

Location of Jet Stream: Currently over Scotland

Conditions: Mild (12C), fresh south-westerly breeze, some occasional clear spells.

Observations: Seeing very good (II), all four systems cleanly resolved at 260x and 354x.


Overall Results & Conclusions:

This study was conducted over the course of one month, from mid-August to mid-September 2018, a period covering 31 days.

The number of days where observations could be conducted was 21, or ~68% of the available nights.

No link was found between the presence of the Jet Stream and the inability to resolve four double star systems with angular separations ranging from ~2.5-1.5″. Indeed, many good nights of seeing were reported whilst the Jet Stream was over my observing location. In contrast, some of the worst conditions of seeing occurred on evenings when the Jet Stream was not situated over my observing site.

There is, however, a very strong correlation between the number of nights available for these observations and the efforts of the observer.

Many of the nights the Jet Stream was located over my observing site were windy, but this was not found to affect seeing. While the wind certainly makes observations more challenging, it is not an indicator of astronomical seeing per se. That said, no east or northeast airflows were experienced during the spell these observations were conducted. At my observing site, such airflows often bring poor seeing.

The archived data (from January 16 2014) on the Jet Sream site linked to above provide many more data points which affirm the above conclusions.

I have no reason to believe that my site is especially favoured to conduct such observations. What occurred here must be generally true at many other locations.

These results are wholly consistent with the available archives from keen observers observing from the UK in the historical past. This author knows of at least two (or possibly three) historically significant visual observers who enjoyed and documented a very high frequency of suitable observing evenings in the UK.

Contemporary observers are best advised to take Jet Stream data with a pinch of salt. It ought not deter a determined individual to carry out astronomical obervations. Perpetuating such myths does the hobby no good.

Post Scriptum:  June 18 2019, Irish imager, Kevin Breen, used his C11 to obtain decent images of Jupiter under a very active Jet Stream. Details here.


Neil English debunks many more observing myths using historical data in his new book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, due out in October 2018.


De Fideli.

Book Review: “Improbable Planet” by Hugh Ross.

A Fresh Look at our World.

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,

What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”

For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

                                                                                                                       Hebrews 2: 5-8


Title: Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home (2016)

Author: Hugh Ross

Publisher: Baker Books

ISBN: 9780801016899

Price: £12.99 (paperback) pp 283

I love my long summer vacations after another year of intense teaching, from mid-May to late August. I get to do lots of things around the house.

Recently I decided that it was high time to re-organize some of the books in my library. So I went ahead and removed all the titles by Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Fortey, Frank Drake, Seth Shostak, Richard Leakey, Jacob Bronowski and a few others, and re-shelved them in my newly enlarged fiction section.

“Heresy!” I hear you shout. Well, after reading this new book, Improbable Planet, by astronomer and Christian apologist, Hugh Ross, I was compelled to do so. Ross is no scientific shrinking violet. Holding a bachelors degree in physics from the University of British Columbia and a Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Toronto, Ross also carried out post-doctoral research on quasars at Caltech before his Christian faith led him to begin a ministry that seeks to show the harmony between science and faith; a worldview informed from the idea that the Creator provided not one, but two revelatory books; Scripture and Nature. In 1987, he founded his organisation, Reasons to Believe(RTB), in southern California, which has grown in size and influence, helping thousands of thoughtful people make the transition from unbelief to belief. Not only does RTB address astronomical topics, his team now includes PhD-trained scientists in molecular biology, chemistry and physics, as well as a number of highly trained philosophers and theologians. Ross has also built up a huge ‘extended family’ of like-minded people, not just from the sciences and medicine, but the wider community in general, which you can find in presentations of their testimonies on the RTB website.

The thesis of Dr. Ross’ book is this: far from being an ordinary planet orbiting an ordinary star in an undistinguished planetary system, lost in an obscure part of a typical galaxy adrift in a vast sea of other like galaxies, the Earth was the location of an extraordinary chain of events that took place over the aeons, where a super-intelligent agency (which he identifies as Jesus Christ), prepared our planet for its eventual seeding by human beings for the purposes of redeeming billions of souls – a sizeable minority of all the humans that have ever walked the face of the Earth. In support of these claims, Ross calls on an enormous body of scientific evidence from the fields of astronomy, cosmology, planetary science, paleontology, geology and biology to make his case.

Of course, for some, the fact that Ross identifies as a Christian is a complete showstopper. That’s unfortunate, as many will dismiss the book simply based on the man’s spiritual beliefs, but that’s a terrible argument from ignorance; no different in essence from any other kind of bigotry. But rest assured, if you enjoy science, once you settle into the work, you’ll soon appreciate how compelling his arguments are.

Ross can best be described as an Old Earth Creationist, by which I mean, he accepts the consensus view in the scientific community that the Earth and the Universe in which we find ourselves in is old. But not all OECs believe in all the same things. He defends hot big bang cosmology as the origin of space-time and all the matter and energy it contains. He believes that stars and planets evolve over time, citing a huge body of evidence in support of his beliefs. What you won’t find in this book however, is support for biological (read Darwinian) evolution. A long-time sceptic of the evolutionary paradigm, his highly trained team has expertly critiqued the ‘wooly’ scientific claims of its adherants. Now that Neo-Darwinian evolution is coming away at the seams, with an army of biologists now abandoning it by the droves, his long-held and deeply entrenched scepticism of this so-called ‘science’ has been fully vindicated.

Sadly, Ross has endured criticisms, not so much from secular scientists, who largerly respect his work, but from other Christians who hold to a Young Earth Creationist(YEC) perspective, that is, the Earth and the Universe around us are only 6,000 years old. And some YECs have acted very aggressively toward his apologetics. This is also unfortunate, since the age of the Earth is not an issue that Christians should divide over. In truth, both groups have much more in common than they have differences. Indeed, it matters not whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or billions of years old; nature alone will never produce something as complex as a living system in either scheme. Fortunately, his gentle demeanour has won over many YECs over the years and gained the admiration of still more.

That said, there will always be diehard YECs….and that’s OK.


An interesting aside:

Dr. Ross presents some very intriguing facts about the demography of the human race over time. Consider this data found on page 229:

Date  (AD)                          # of Non-Christians per Christian

100                                            360

1000                                          220

1500                                            69

1900                                            27

1950                                             22

1980                                             11

1990                                               7

I suppose we could add a data point for today’s world as well; 3.57


A fresh interpretation of the facts:

The opening chapters of the book assesses the big scientific picture; we live on the outskirts of an unusually large and symmetric barred spiral galaxy, our solar system orbiting the Milky Way galaxy about 26,000 light years form the centre. But astronomers have discovered that the location of our solar system lies just inside the edge of the so-called co-rotation axis of the galaxy, where stars orbit at the same speed as the nearby spiral arms. This is highly fortuitous, Ross argues, as it largely prevents the solar system from entering and leaving spiral arms which would likely have severely disrupted any life that would have developed on the planet. But we know that the solar system very likely did not form where it is located today. The evidence suggests that the unsually high metallicity of the Earth and the solar system at large, points to a location of origin much closer to the galactic centre, where the abundance of such metals are much higher than at the co-rotation axis.

Nota bene: Astronomers refer to all elements heavier than hydogen, helium and lithium as ‘metals’. Such metals were forged inside ancient stars and released to the interstellar medium when they die, either as planetary nebulae or in cataclysmic supernovae events. The incidence of the latter was much higher nearer the galactic centre where the densities of stars was considerably higher than it is at our present location. Indeed stellar metallicty peaks about 50 per closer to the galactic centre than it does at our present orbital radius.

A detailed analysis of the solar system’s elemental abundance strongly suggests that it was enriched by a number of different supernovae explosions(including a very rare type) that enriched it with unsually high levels of heavy elements, particualrly long-lived radionuclides such as uranium and thorium but also short lived species like aluminium 26. This is clearly seen in the abundance of aluminium in the Earth’s crust which comes in at about 8.1 per cent as opposed to the 0.01 per cent for the Universe at large. The rapid decay of these relatively huge quantities of radioactive aluminium released a great deal of heat which helped purge our neonatal solar system of much of the volatile material it would have otherwise ended up with. Our Sun is also anamolous in its oscillatory motion above and below the mid-plane of the Milky Way. Stars in the solar neighbourhood oscillate at right angles to the galactic plane with an amplitude of about 400 light years. In contrast, the Sun exhibits an oscillatory amplitude about half of this value, protecting it from being excessively bathed in galactic radiation, which would have also destroyed the ozone layer, resulting with an increased UV irradiance upon the Earth, scuppering future land life.

The Moon-forming event is discussed in detail, where a Mars-sized object(nicknamed Theia) collided with the neonatal Earth sometime between 50 and 100 million years after our world formed by accretion of material from the solar nebula. Ross explains that this has caused quite a bit of ‘philosophic disquiet’ among some of leading researchers in the field:

The cover article for the December 5, 2013, issue of Nature reported Canup’s concern that “current theories on the formation of the Moon owe too much to cosmic coincidences.”

pp 54

In any event, the collision produced a Moon with sufficient mass to stablise the Earth’s rotation tilt axis, protecting our planet from rapid and extreme climatic variations. Over the aeons, our Moon has gradually recessed from the Earth, slowing its rotation rate to a life-sustaining level. The Moon-forming event further removed large quantities of volatiles from the primordial Earth, preventing it from outgassing enormous quantities of water vapour which would have caused our world to end up with a choking global ocean hundreds of kilometres deep, prevening the formation of continents required for efficient re-cycling of nutrients necessary for all life.

Chapter 6 describes the dynamical history of the planets in our solar system, particualrly the formation of the asteroid belt and the ‘grand tack’ migrations of Jupiter from its rapid formation beyond the snow line of the solar system, followed by its migration inward before moving back out from the Sun to its present stable position. Indeed, the Sun’s family of planets and their positioning is unlike any exoplanetary system thus far characterised.

Chapter 7 provides a fascinating overview of the concept of a habitable zone but takes it far beyond what most science writers are willing to consider. Most of us, for example, are familiar with the water habitable zone; that annulus around a star where temperatures allow a planet to maintain liquid water over geological timescales. Ross takes this concept to a whole new level though, describing not one, but a further seven other zones that must be set in place to allow life to flourish on Earth. These include:

  1. The Ultraviolet habitable zone
  2. Photosynthesis habitable zone
  3. Ozone habitable zone
  4. Rotation rate habitable zone
  5. Obliquity habitable zone
  6. Tidal habitable zone
  7. Astrospheric habitable zone

Without revealing too much in the way of details, Ross writes concerning the UV habitable zone:

The fact that the liquid water and UV habitable zones must overlap for the sake of life eliminates most planetary systems as possible candidates for hosting life. This requirement effectively rules out all M dwarf and most K dwarf stars, as well as O-, B- and A- stars. All that remain are F-type stars much younger than the Sun, G-type stars no older than the Sun, and a small fraction of the K dwarf stars. As  described in chapter 5, only stars at a certain distance from the galactic core can be considered candidates for life support. In the Milky Way Galaxy, some 75 per cent of all stars residing at this appropriate-for-life-distance are older than the Sun. Once these and other non-candidate stars are ruled out, only 3 per cent of all stars in our galaxy remain as possible hosts for planets on which primitive life could briefly survive.

pp 85

Chapter 8 is particularly meaty from a scientific perspective, as it is in this chapter that Ross lends his decades-long studies to the thorny issue of how life appeared on Earth. He writes:

More than a decade ago, evidence indicated that the origin of life occurred within an immeasurably brief time span. The late heavy bombardment (LHB) raised the temperature of the entire planetary surface so high as to evaporate all its water and melt all its rocks. Then, according to multiple isotopic studies, just as soon as the surface temperature cooled enough for the possibility of life’s existence, life appeared. This evidence prompted paleontologist Niles Eldredge to comment, “One of the most arresting facts that I have ever learned is that life goes back as far in Earth history as we can possibly trace it…..In the very oldest rocks that stand a chance of showing signs of life, we find those signs.”

pp 97

That the Earth had life as soon as conditions were cool enough to accommodate them  seems inescapable, and Ross quotes numerous studies recently(as in the last decade) conducted on ancient zircon minerals, graphitic carbon, and metamorphosed shale that clearly show that a complex biosphere was already established as early as 3.8 billion years ago. The ‘smoking gun’ to this complex origin of life may, according to Ross, come from the isotopic signature of photosynthetic life as early as 3.7 billion years ago. He writes:

Another research team found that the carbon isotope signature of planktonic oragnisms in metamorphosed shale dating to 3.7 bliion+ year ago. In the same shale they measured a high ratio of uranium to thorium. This finding indicated a sequence whereby organic debris produced by a local reducing environment that precipitated uranium deposited in the shale sediment by oxidized ocean water. The presence of this oxidised water implies that oxygenic photosynthetic life was abundant prior to 3.7 billion years ago. Given that the simplest oxygenic photosynthetic bacteria contain over 2,000 gene products, this finding suggests that highly complex unicellular life already existed sometime before that date.

pp 98-99

How this complex cellular biochemistry originated so early completely eludes an evolutionary mechanism. It is simply incredulous that such complex cellular life could could come into being by a blind(by necessity) Darwinian process in such a short a time window. Indeed, more and more studies are revealing the same pattern: life began complex.


Another curious  aside: What’s the status of prebiotic chemical research?

Even the first chemical steps towards life require an in-ordinate amount of human ingenuity(read intelligent design or foresight). That much was recently admitted by a high-ranking  German prebiotic chemist in a leading scientific journal. Other heavy weights in the field have also waded into this debate, including Professor James Tour (who favourably reviewed an earlier draft of Ross’ book), who has exposed the scale of ignorance exhibited by educators towards this intractable scientific problem. Furthermore a credible source(terrestrial or extraterrestrial)  of homochiral enantiomers of sugars and amino acids needed to build the first cells has not yet been identified. Indeed the origin of life is the oustanding scientific problem of our generation and will likely remain so for many decades, if not centuries to come.

Much of this is not reported in the popular science periodicals, so readers beware!



Many people think it reasonable to believe in some vague evolutionary sequence of events simply by noting that the first lifeforms were microbes with multi-cellular organisms following them before the most complex creatures of all appeared; vascular plants and animals. But Ross entertains an entirely novel idea; the reason why life started out with microbes before introducing more complex life has nothing to do with evolution; more specifically he notes that the environment of the early Earth was very hostile to life, with large swings in temperature and pH, very high concentrations of unprocessed vital poisons** and with radiation levels(from the decay of radioactive atoms) five times higher than exist today. The reason why life started with microbes is that they are much hardier than more complex life (eukaryotes and muti-cellular lifeforms). Indeed, Ross points out that these biochemically sophisticated microbial species removed large amounts of vital poisons from the environment turning many of them into ores (many of which are now used by humanity in high technology devices).



What are vital poisons?

Vital posons are elements that are toxic if ingested at too high concentrations but are needed at specified low concentrations in body tissues to enable life processes to be maintained. Such elements include boron, fluorine, iron, sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, sulphur, chromium, manganese, copper, zinc, iodine, molybdenum, cobalt and nickel etc.


Thus, in this scheme of events, the Creator put these microbes to work as early as possible to terraform (my own terminology) the Earth’s earliest environments, clearing it of solubilised toxins which was necessary before eukaryotic and multicellular life-forms could be introduced!

In chapter 9, Ross provides an excellent overview of how primitive life functioned in maintaining the large-scale geologic health of our planet, particularly in playing a starring role in stimulating long-lived plate tectonic activity:

In 2015, two geophysicists, Eugene Grosch and Robert Hazen, noted that the subsurface fluid-rock microbe interactions could result in more efficient hydration of the early Earth’s  oceanic crust. This hydration would promote bulk melting leading to the production of felsic crust( igneous rocks rich in feldspar and quartz), which, being lighter than basaltic crust, in turn would generate microcontinents. That is, Earth’s first microbes, by faciliating extensive hydrothermal alteration of ocean floors, yielded extensive mineral diversification that soon resulted in the formation of several microcontinents.

pp 111


What is more, as life began to gorge on the minerals formed in Earth’s early crust, it accelerated its weathering, which in turn fed the resulting sediments into subduction zones, thereby stimulating still greater tectonic activity. This was vitally important for Earth’s future history, as the decline in long-lived radioisotopes over time might not have generated the required levels of thermal energy needed to keep the crust in a pliable state needed to build the large continents our planet would end up having. In addition, the early introduction of global  oxygenic photosynthesis drew large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to compensate for a steadily brightening Sun. What Ross makes clear is that without the early introduction of life on Earth, this planet would most likely be sterile or nearly so, by now.


Yet another curious aside:

Our world is richly endowed with minerals. Indeed, compared with Mars and Venus, which have an estimated 500 and 1000 different types of minerals, respectively, Earth is lavished with over 4,600 known mineral varieties, many of which required the active presence of living systems to create them! See Robert Hazen’s 2013 book, The Story of Earth, for further details.


As described in chapter 11, ongoing plate tectonic activity resulted in the formation of virtually all of Earth’s continental land mass by about 2.5 billion years ago, resulting in 29 per cent of our planet’s surface area being covered by dry land above sea level. To most onlookers, a value of 29 per cent seems somewhat arbitrary, but in fact, it may be highly fine-tuned. Greater land surface areas would induce too little precipitation in the interior of those ancient continents, preventing life from gaining a foothold in these places. On the other hand, land areas significantly less than 29 per cent would not be able to re-cycle enough valuable nutrients between the land, the sea and the atmosphere to maintain a healthy biosphere.

Chapter 13 & 14 of Improbable Planet discuss the significance of the many mass extinction events in Earth history with forensic detail. Again, at first glance, this might indicate that the cause of life on Earth has no author, but Ross begs to differ. Indeed, he suggests that the sporadic cycles of extirpation followed by rapid recovery of the biosphere with new forms of life achieved two aims;

1. The remains of these ancient life-forms yielded massive amounts of new biodeposits that would be used by humanity to launch a global civilization( think of how fossil fuels led to the Industrial Revolution, for example).

2. The lifeforms that replaced those that went extinct were more efficient collectively at drawing more greenhouse gases out of the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby compensating for the greater heating effects of an ever-brightening Sun.


A Question for your consideration: If God designed life so that it could evolve from one kind into another, then why does Earth history reveal so many mass extinction events? Why would He bother?



Ross calls on the second revelatory book of Scripture to advance his claims. Consider the words of the Psalmist of old:

These all wait for You,
That You may give them their food in due season.
What You give them they gather in;
You open Your hand, they are filled with good.
You hide Your face, they are troubled;
You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
And You renew the face of the earth.

Psalm 104: 27-30

Intriguingly, the fossil record agrees with the creation and extinction events discussed in Psalm 104 but, significantly, does not support a gradualistic scheme long envisaged by evolutionists.  Accordingly Ross takes his trained scientific eye and applies this to the study of the most famous explosive events in the history of life on Earth; the Avalon (574 -543 Million years ago) and Cambrian Explosions (543-533 Million years ago), the latter of which led to the sudden emergence of some 80 per cent of all existing animal body plans without any credible evolutionary antecedents! Perectly formed eyes, brains, nervous systems, skeletal systems etc, appearing as if out of nowhere.

Ross discusses the sense of bewilderment expressed by paleontologists seeking to provide an evolutionary explanation for these quantum leaps in biology, which are outlined in pages 172 to 179, quoting some leading researchers in the field, and in particular the utter failure of molecular clocks to keep pace with all the innovations wrought by these  explosive events in the history of life.


Essential reading for the intellectually curious.

Some further reading on the Cambrian Explosion: I would highly recommend readers  consult and study Stephen C. Meyer’s New York Times best-selling book Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design(2013). Concerning this book, paleontologist Dr. Mark McMenamin(Mt. Holyoke College) said:

It is hard for us paleontologists, steeped as we are in a tradition of Darwinian analysis, to admit that neo-Darwinian explanations for the Cambrian explosion have failed miserably. New data acquired in recent years, instead of solving Darwin’s dilemma, have rather made it worse. Meyer describes the dimensions of the problem with clarity and precision. His book is a game changer for the study of evolution and points us in the right direction as we seek a new theory for the origin of amimals.


In the final few chapters of the book, Ross outlines an extraordinary sequence of events involving continental breakup, mountain formation, ocean current changes, and ice ages that prepared our planet for the arrival of the pinnacle of God’s creation; humans. He notes that mankind’s appearance coincided with a time when solar activity flaring was at its lowest and solar luminosity (the Sudbury study) reached its greatest stability. Putting it all together he writes:

Is it mere coincidence that our one-of-a-kind long cool summer occurs simultaneously with the following unique events: (1) The Sun becomes exceptionally stable in luminosity, with minimal flaring and ultraviolet and X-ray radiation; (2) no nearby supernova eruptions occur: (3) maximization of the diversity and abundance of life on Earth; (4) various habitable zone windows align perfectly; and (5) many other coincidences described in these pages all come together? Not likely. These amazingly arranged features should give us pause to consider the meaning of our human existence.

pp 218-19

The final chapter reveals the spiritual reasons for human existence as outlined in the pages of the Bible. The enormous body of scientific ‘coincidences’ that Ross presents make it very clear that God deliberately and painstakingly prepared the Earth for humans and that our existence is truly a miracle. That said, these conditions cannot persist indefinitely. We are living in a very narrow window of time in which all these factors work optimally. The story Ross weaves makes it very unlikely that other lifeforms will exist elsewhere in the Universe, as many other scientific authorities in the field are now beginning to concede, and certainly nothing like human beings, but he does point out that we are not alone. The God of the Bible created a host of angelic creatures, the majority of which remained loyal to their Maker and have some capacity to interact with humans. It’s up to each and every one of us to accept Christ’s offer of redemption with exigency or suffer the eternal consequences.

I will leave you with the words of Professor James Tour concerning this wonderful book:

“In Improbable Planet, Ross holds the readers’ hand, leading them in a readable yet gently technical format through a compelling layer-upon-layer argument for the distinctiveness of the planet on which we live and of the preparation for inimitable life on Earth. The text is replete witth references from primary scientific articles in some of the most well-respected journals, underscoring the highest academic rigor taken in substantiating the factual claims. Only the shamefully flippant could dismiss this book as being a faith-filled presentation rather than the scholarly work it represents.”

I wholeheartedly agree!


Dr. Neil English is the author of a large(650+ pages) historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, recently published by Springer-Nature.


 De Fideli.

A Dozen “Must See” Sights in the Spring Sky.

The author’s 130mm f/5 Newtonian; used to explore northern Spring skies.

The Spring sky offers many delightful sights for the backyard observer. While the nights are shorter, the temperatures are generally milder and more conducive to observing for prolonged lengths of time. In this project I have selected what I have come to discover is a first-rate grab ‘n’ go telescope(which can be tested!!!); a customised 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector. It has a very well-figured SkyWatcher primary mirror with state-of-the-art and durable high reflectivity coatings, an upgraded secondary mirror(with the same high reflectivity coatings) with a modest 26.9 per cent central obstruction. The tube is lined with cork and overlaid with flocking material to provide excellent contrast and good thermal stability, ideally suited to high resolution work. The primary and secondary mirrors have easy to adjust hand screws to achieve ultra-precise collimation in seconds. It cools very quickly, and provides gorgeous, high-contrast images at magnifications from 26x to over 500x when conditions allow. It proved very cost-effective too; typically a small fraction of what I had already spent on similarly sized telescopes in the past. The instrument sits stably on my Vixen Porta II alt-azimuth mount, equipped with slow motion controls on both axes, and which allows me to move the telescope very smoothly and precisely, even at ultra-high powers. I can lift the telescope and tripod with one hand and whisk it into the garden where I let it acclimate for about 20 to 30 minutes (the latter if high resolution targets are being imaged) prior to use.

This choice of grab ‘n’ go didn’t come naturally though. For a decade, I was caught up in the pretentious and materialistic world of tiny, high-quality refractors costing an arm and a leg. Yes, I’ve had my fair share of ‘poodles’;

A Televue 76,

ATelevue Genesis F/5 and Televue 102,

A Meade 127mm f/9 ED

A 90mm ED

And a few other smaller 60-63mm apochromats to boot.

Only through extensive field experience did I learn that they all had their limitations. The 3- and 4 inch refractors ran out of light too quickly and didn’t have enough resolving power for my particular interest in close double stars. And while the 5-inch refractors certainly delivered more light and better resolving power, I quickly grew tired of adjusting their pivot points on a large and heavy mount on the fly, and straining to attain a comfortable observing position whilst observing objects at high altitudes.

Above all else, I learned that if you’re not comfortable observing, you won’t stick at it for very long!

Enter the modified 130mm f/5, pictured above. Its lighweight, quick cool down time and with optical performance more closely aligned with a 5-inch than a 4-inch refractor, quickly won my admiration. It was another one of those sweet experiences one ocassionally stumbles upon in life. I just found it hard to fault.

But it was the sheer ease of use, the comfortable positioning of my body in all sky orientations, that finally convinced me to give up on similar sized refractors. Nowadays, the largest refractor I have any interest in is a humble 80mm f/5 achromat; the subject of my next book. Furthermore, the fact that none of my former associates (mostly refractor nuts and “fair weathered” friends, who turned on me because I refused to become a “poodle pusher”), were willing to test and publicly report just how good a 130mm f/5 Newtonian could be, revealed to me all too loud and clear that they were in denial about its capabilities. Their reticence all too easily demonstrated the true level of their experience; which didn’t amount to very much, in retrospect!

Sorry to pour cold water over your heads boys, but you’re just not credible!

In an amusing development, I was accused of being intolerant to those who use smaller telescopes for grab ‘n’ go astronomy. Nothing could be further from the truth! You’re perfectly entitled to use any telescope you want and in some cases, only a very small and lightweight telescope is the only practical solution. But apart from these restrictions, I do question why one would use a smaller instrument when larger grab ‘n’ go telescopes such as my 130mm f/5 resolves finer details, gathers more light and are often (in the case of Newtonians and catadioptrics) less expensive than the instruments my accuser obsesses over. So it’s not so much about intolerance as it is about expressing plain common sense lol! It’s just a better all-round telescope for grab ‘n’ go!

In this article, I want to share with you some of the wonderful sights that grace the vernal heavens and which are accessible to an amateur equipped with a 4- or 5-inch telescope. The observations I will report are from a fairly dark, rural sky, which enjoys excellent transparency, owing to the frequent weather systems that sweep up particulates very effectively, as they move in off the Irish Sea. What’s more, they are fairly easy to find and are a joy to study from the comfort of my back garden.

Object 1: Messier 3

Let’s begin our journey with a visit to Messier 3, a bright(magnitude +6) globular cluster on the border between Bootes and Canes Venatici. To find it, imagine an invisible line between the bright orange star Arcturus and Cor Caroli(itself a rather fetching double star for small telescopes). Almost exactly half way between these stars, binoculars will pick up a fuzzy star about half the size of the full Moon in an otherwise unremarkable patch of sky. Keen eyed individuals from the darkest sites will likely detect it with their eyes, but so far it has eluded this author’s visual acuity.

Charged with a power of 87x (Parks Gold 7.5mm), M 3 is an arresting sight, with a bright, rather condensed core surrounded by a distinctly more ragged periphery. If conditions permit, crank up the power to 135x(an old 4.8mm T1 Nagler)  and you will be able to resolve quite a few of its outlying stars. Indeed, I find that more stellar members can be seen in M 3 than in the more celebrated M 13, even though the latter is brighter and slightly larger. Averted vision will help you see many more stellar members. Spare a thought for the prodigious distance of M 3; 27,000 light years from the solar system. At this distance, this magnificent bauble of starlight spans a diameter of about 180 light years, inside of which some half a million suns reside. M 3 was discovered by the great visual observer, Charles Messier, who first observed this globular cluster on the faithful evening of May 3, 1764.

Every increase in telescope aperture provides an improvement to the view. Seen through my 12-inch F/5 Dob at powers of 250x or above, it is a truly mesmerizing sight!

Object 2: Messier 37

Though the large and imposing constellation of Auriga is now past its best for northern viewers, it is still very well placed fairly high in the western sky immediately after sunset. Binoculars capable of delivering an 8-degree field of view can just frame the three Messier open clusters( M36, M37 and M38)  running through the belly of the constellation in more or less a straight line. Messier 37 is both the grandest and eastern-most of this trio of galactic clusters, and is easily tracked down in the finder of a small, backyard telescope.

At 26x (Celestron 25mm X-Cel LX) in the 130mm reflector, the cluster presents rather like a loosely packed globular cluster about the half the size of the full Moon, in a rich stellar hinterland of the Milky Way. But as one begins to increase the magnification beyond 60x or so, the true nature of this object manifests to the eye. The impressive light gathering power and resolution of the 130mm presents a gorgeous field of faint stardust comprising some 150 members. This cluster takes magnification quite well and is very much worth a closer look with a higher power ocular. At 118x (Meade Series 5000 5.5mm UWA), M 37 is an awe-inspiring sight, with stars of mostly equal glory filling the field of view. I feel it is the near uniformity of the brightness of the stars in this cluster that renders it so visually engaging, with a distinctly orange-tinted sun at the centre of the cluster; and you’ll definitely see that distinctive hue a little better in a larger aperture ‘scope. M 37 lies about 4,500 light years away from the solar system.

Object 3: Messier 44

The constellation of Cancer is distinguished from many others in that its brightest stellar luminaries(including Epsilon Cancri at magnitude + 6.3) are actually fainter than the most celebrated Messier object within its borders. I speak of course of the magnificent M 44, more commonly known as the Beehive Cluster, which is easily tracked down with the naked eye on a dark, moonless night as a large, roughly circular third magnitude glow, approaching the meridian about 10pm local time at the beginning of April. A wonderful object for large binoculars, which pull in about 60 stars, a medium aperture telescope greatly increases the tally of stellar members that can be seen, increasing the number to well over 100. Using my 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX eyepiece delivering a true field of 2.3 angular degrees at 26x in the 130mm f/5 Newtonian, the ~ 1.5 degree wide Beehive is very well framed for study. The field explodes with the light of mostly white stars, many of which(perhaps 20 per cent?) appear to be double or multiple in nature. Higher powers will, of course, pull in still fainter members down to magnitude +12 or so, but its glory is somewhat diminished owing to the inability of the same eyepiece to capture the entire cluster within its narrower field. This rather loosely arranged galactic cluster provides clues to its more advanced age, which is estimated to be about  800 million years. M44 is located at a distance of just under 600 light years from the solar system.

Object 4: Epsilon Bootis

Contrary to received wisdom(read parroted, armchair ignorance), Newtonian reflectors make very neat double star telescopes. I have personally been astonished how well they operate on these targets, having examined a great many systems with a variety of Newtonians over the last several years. Indeed, the 130mm f/5 has rapidly become one of my favourite instruments to divine double and multiple stars, where it has resolved pairs as tight as 0.9″ under ideal conditions. What is more, it is a decidedly better instrument than the finest 4-inch refractor money can buy, its extra light gathering power and resolution coming into its own particulalrly on fainter pairs. Our next target is not especially difficult to resolve but it does present as one of the spring sky’s most beautiful binary star systems. Also known by its more common name of Izar, it is easily located with the naked eye late on spring evenings, where it can easily be made out as a magnitude +2.5 field star off to the northeast of Arcturus. Through the 130mm reflector, Izar presents as a beautiful colour-contrast double with a bright orange primary(magnitude +2.8) and fainter, magnitude + 4.8 secondary with a soft bluish hue, giving rise to its latinised nickname, Pulcherrima (the most beautiful!). Intriguingly, the secondary is actually a sun-like star in its stage of evolution, yet the eye sees it as something altogether different!  I love to observe Izar regularly throughout the spring and summer months with the 130mm, usually charging it with a power of 260x (Parks Gold 7.5mm coupled to a 3x Meade Barlow lens). On the steadiest evenings the Newtonian presents the stars as lovely round Airy disks, surrounding by a faint first diffraction ring. Separated by about 3.0″, it is best seen when the system rises to a decent altitude above the eastern horizon, which in early April, is not attained until around midnight or later. If at first you don’t succeed with this system, try again on a calmer night when it’s higher in the sky.

Object 5: Messier 81 & 82

On April evenings, Ursa Major lies very high in the sky and is ideal for observing objects within its borders. Our next target is a pair of bright Messier galaxies easily tracked down by following an imaginary line from Phecda (Gamma Ursae Majoris) through Dubhe(Alpha Ursae Majoris) and extending this line about the same distance again. Use your finder to look for a 7th magnitude smudge. If you find it hard to track down with your finder, try using a 10 x 50 binocular. The 5.1″ Newtonian charged with a power of 26x frames both galaxies very well within the same field, where I can easily make out a round, softly glowing smudge with a noticeably brighter centre. This is the celebrated spiral galaxy M81. Just half an angular degree to the north you’ll see a cigar shaped smudge about twice as long as it is broad and about a magnitude fainter; the irregular galaxy M82. For a better view, I like to crank up the power to 59x using an Explore Scientific 11mm (82 degree AFOV), which considerably darkens the sky allowing me to study both galaxies better in the spacious 1.35 degree true field. With averted vision, I can just trace out the faint spiral arms of M81, but in many ways I think M82 looks more interesting, as its smaller size makes its surface brightness that little bit higher than M81. M 82 appears distinctly mottled to my eye owing to prominent dust lanes coursing through its mid-section. It is also actively birthing stars. Both galaxies lie about 12 million light years away.

Object 6: Messier 51 & NGC 5195

Our next port of call doesn’t lie too far away from M81 & M82. Easily spotted in 10 x 50 binoculars as a 8th magnitude glow, Messier 51( the Whirlpool Galaxy) is easily tracked down about 3.5 degrees to the southwest of Eta Ursae Majoris, the end star of the Plough handle, and just across the border in Canes Venatici. Easily discernible as distinctly non-stellar at 26x in my 5.1″ f/5 Newtonian two distinct glows can be seen at a glance in the low power field. To get a better view though, crank the power up to beyond a 100x or so to increase the image scale and darken the background sky. At 118x in my 5.5mm Meade Ultrawide angle eyepiece, the view is quite compelling. Hints of the spiral nature of M51 can just be made out in this small telescope as can its smaller companion galaxy, NGC 5195. With good dark adaptation and averted vision, you may just be able to make out the famous luminous bridge ‘connecting’ the two. I find that the sky needs to be very transparent and still to glimpse this structure. It also helps being so high in the sky at this time of year where the effects of the atmopshere are less severe. Failing that, if you place M51 just outside the field of the view, examining NGC 5195 for signs of a slight increase in brightness in the space separating the two galaxies. Of course, M51 and NGC 5195 are much better seen in larger instruments such as my 12″ telescope, but it’s always good to visit this historically significant face-on spiral, as it was first delineated using the great 72 inch Leviathan of Parsonstown back in 1845 by visual means. Astronomers reckon NGC 5195 brushed past M51 about 100 million years ago and is now ‘behind’ it. Both galaxies lie about 26 million light years away.

Object 7: Messier 67

Our next object, the rich open cluster, M67, is often overlooked on account of the greater splendour of Cancer’s most illustrious object, M44. To find it, move your telescope a little under two angular degrees west of Alpha Cancri(Acubens). Easily visible in binoculars as a rougly elliptically shaped misty patch about the size of the full Moon, my 130mm Newtonian at 59x resolves this pretty cluster into a mound of several dozen faint stars quite similar to M37 at first glance, the brightest of which shine at the 10th magnitude of glory. Cranking up the magnification to 118x allows you to pick off many more members bringing the stellar tally upwards of 100. The faintest members of this 300+ strong cluster are not resolved in this small telescope but rather presents the illusion of nebulosity wreathing its way throughout its 25′-wide frame. To my eye, the stars are arranged in curious swirls with an overall shape quite reminscent of ‘incandescent seahorse’ set adrift in a vast ocean of space. The cluster is believed to be quite advanced in age; 3 to 5 billion years by most astronomers’ reckoning, and lies at a distance of about 2,600 light years from us.

Object 8: Messier 5

Our next target, M5,  lies in Serpens and is a most rewarding sight for small tellescope owners. Probably the easiest way to get to it is to start with magnitude +2.6 Beta Librae. With my wide-angle 8 x 42 binocular, offering up an expansive 8+ degree true field, I place Beta Librae at the bottom of the field before moving it directly north for about one and a half binocular fields, where the instrument easily picks up a bloated  6th magnitude star located very close to a 5th magnitude yellow subgiant star, 5 Serpentis. A stunning sight in my 130mm f/5 Newtonian at 26x, M5 presents as a rather mottled looking ball with a very bright core a little over half the size of the full Moon. But crank up the power to beyond 100x or so and this celebrated globular cluster takes on a whole new level of complexity, with a very well resolved outer section. At 118x the Newtonian presents several dozen faint stars swarming around the core, which remains largely unresolved. It is an absolutely stunning sight in my 12″ f/5 at 256x, easily rivalling M13 in majesty. M5 lies just under 25,000 light years from the solar system. While you’re there, why not take a closer look at 5 Serpentis, located just 22′ to M5’s south and easily visible in the expansive field of my 5.5mm Meade UWA ocular(118x). A concentrated gaze reveals that it has a faint, 10th magnitude companion roughly due east of the primary and separated by about 11″ of dark sky. What a visual treat!

Object 9: Porrima (Gamma Virginis); Our next telescopic object is well positioned around 11pm local time on mid-May evenings in the south. A simple star map will easily enable you to find this magnitude +2.7 star ‘up’ and to the right of brilliant Spica(Alpha Virginis). Over the years, I’ve watched this celebrated double star widen from its minimum separation in 2005(and requiring a large aperture ‘scope to resolve the pair) to its present condition, where it is easily resolved at high power in most any small back garden ‘scope. The near equal magnitude (+3.5 and +3.4) stars present as a most commanding sight in my 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector at 260x (7.5mm Parks Gold & 3x Meade shorty Barlow), with both stars shining with an intensely white hue (both are F0 spectral class) and separated by about 2.8″ of dark sky. Their orientation is roughly north-south. This beautiful binary system lies a mere 38 light years from the solar system, with both components orbiting their barycentre(common centre of gravity) every 169 years. The pair will remain an easy target for small telescopes for the remainder of the 21st century.

Object 10: Barnard’s Star: Now for something completely different! We go in search of a faint sun that is moving rapidly against the background stars. Known as Barnard’s star, you can find it a little over 3.5 angular degrees east of the 3rd magnitude Beta Ophiuchi. The best way of distinguishing this magnitude 9.5 star from other stellar sources is to look for its deep red colour. The generous aperture offered by my 130mm F/5 Newtonian has made finding this faint red dwarf star considerably easier than a more conventional grab ‘n’ go ‘scope like an 80mm refractor or some such. Once you’re there, crank up the magnification to 80x or 100x to increase the contrast between the star and the background sky. As luck would have it, there is a fainter (magnitude 11) white star situated very near Barnard’s star, roughly to its east, making its identification a little easier in the telescope. Although attributed to the great American astronomer, E.E. Barnard, he was not the first to note it, but in 1916, Barnard did measure its enormous proper motion; a whopping 10.4″ per year relative to the Sun, owing at least in part to its very close proximity to the solar system; just 6 light years. Though small and dim, Barnard’s star is representative of an enormous population of M dwarfs; cool, low-mass stars that compromise some 80 per of all stellar real estate in the Cosmos, typically ranging in mass from 15 to 20 per cent of the mass of the Sun. Such stars are unlikely places for life to exist however, as any planets lying within their water habitable zones (one of 9 others now characterised) would orbit very close to their surfaces and thus would be tidally locked, showing the same face to their stars as they move in their orbits, overheating one hemisphere while the other one freezes. Such stars are also known to exhibit copious X-ray flaring of deadly radiation, and powerful atmosphere-stripping stellar winds, which collectively  would severely stunt any putative lifeforms that might have taken hold on their attendant planets.

Object 11: Messier 13: Our next target is another globular cluster, easily swept up in my 8 x 42 binocular in the Keystone of Hercules. A grand sight even at low power in my 130mm f/5 Newtonian, M13 shows up as a fuzzy bauble of stars about half the apparent  diameter of the full Moon amid an interesting stellar hinterland. I find it’s best to wait until the constellation is high up in the spring sky where atmospheric extinction is minimised, but which invariably means observing it after midnight on May evenings. Cranking up the power to 118x(5.5mm UWA) in the 5.1″ Newtonian greatly improves the view, allowing one to resolve a few dozen of the more outlying stars in the cluster, which is esimated to contain about 300,000 members. The core is quite condensed in this small aperture telescope and the view is always improved with an increase in telescope aperture. If you really want to see M13 at its most spectacular, I would recommend an aperture of 10 inches or greater. And a 12 inch telescope and upwards will provide views that will knock your socks off. M 13 lies 23,000 light years away and has a true diameter of about 100 light years.

Object 12: Jupiter: This time of year, the planet Jupiter is getting into position for a busy summer of telescopic observations, arriving at opposition on June 10 2019.  As mentioned many times previously, the 130mm f/5 reflector is a very decent-sized instrument to get good views of the giant planet but unfortunately, it is situated very low in the sky at these high northerly latitudes, and so the image will be compromised by greater atmospheric tubulence. Observers located at more southerly latitudes will fair considerably better though. That said, I hope to employ some colour filters to enhance the images of the low-altitude planet and experiment with a range of magnifications to see which is best during this(very unfavourable) opposition here in rural central Scotland. But very encouraging results can be achieved with small telescopes. Check out veteran observer David Gray’s(based in Yorkshire, northern England) sketches of Jove here, where he employed a fine old classic 3 inch long focus refractor to excellent effect. In addition check on the comments of this Australian observer who has waxed lyrical about the images of Jupiter he obtained using a Vixen R130SF, another rendition of the 130mm f/5 Newtonian that I have based most of this blog on. Here is an honest review of the ‘scope’s capabilities, on a Vixen Porta II no less!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this blog. Of course, there are many other targets you can enjoy with a small grab ‘n’ go telescope during spring evenings. The important thing is that you take the time to enjoy the milder nights and the many wonders they present.

Thanks for reading!



Neil English’s new historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy,  shows how many dedicated observers often used modest telescopes to make significant advances in astronomical science.


De Fideli.

Astronomy with an Opera-Glass: Redux.

A trip down Memory Lane with a grand old book & opera glasses.


Astronomy With an Opera Glass (1888) by Garrett P. Serviss

Brief biographical outline: Garrett Putnam Serviss was born on March 24 1851 in Sharon Springs, New York, and educated at Johnstone Academy, New York. After finishing high school, Serviss entered the newly established Cornell University in 1868, graduating with a B.S. degree in Science with honours in 1872. During his time at Cornell, Garrett’s flare for the written and spoken word flourished, so much so that he won awards for poetry. After graduating, Serviss enrolled at Columbia College Law School and in June 1874, received his LL.B and shortly thereafter was admitted to the New York State bar. But practicing jurisprudence as a profession proved to have little appeal to the young man, so he tried his hand at journalism, accepting a job as a reporter and correspondent for the New York Tribune, which he pursued for two years. In 1876, he secured a job at The Sun ( not to be confused with the filth-filled modern newspaper bearing the same name!), becoming copy editor of the paper after just a few years of service. It was during his time at The Sun that Serviss began writing popularised science articles and in particular, a string of articles on amateur astronomy. Indeed, he was so successful in his popuular science writings that his employers created a special role for Serviss as ‘Night Editor,’ a post he maintained for ten years, from 1882 through 1892.

Like so many astronomy enthusiasts, Serviss’ interest in the celestial realm began in childhood on his parent’s’ rural farmstead, where his young eyes would have beheld the preternatural beauty of the night sky, arching from horizon to horizon. As his notoriety grew, Serviss was sought out by a growing fan base, who invited him to give public lectures in astronomy aimed at a lay audience. This allowed him to travel the length and breadth of the country and even on trips abroad to evangelise his love of the night sky. His great success as a science communicator led him naturally to a career as a professional writer, turning out a string of magazine articles and books; both fictional and non fictional, including A Trip to the Moon, Pleasures of the Telescope, and Astronomy in a Nutshell. Arguably his greatest and most far-reaching work in amateur astronomy was his Astronomy with an Opera Glass, which was first published in 1888, the subject matter of this blog.

Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929).

Serviss was, through and through, a man of the great outdoors, enjoying hill walking and mountain climbing well into his autumn years. One of his greatest personal acheivements was to reach the summit of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, which he accomplished aged 43 years. “It was done,” he said, “in an effort to get as far away from terrestrial gravity as possible.”

Among his other creations is a “Star and Planet Finder:” a forerunner to the modern planisphere, which he marketed in collaboration with a one Mr. Leon Barritt, which proved to be an indispensable science tool for school children throughout the United States. Serviss married Miss Eleanore Belts and together they had a son, Garrett P. Jnr., who excelled at athletics, winning the silver medal for his country in the High Jump at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Sadly, Eleanore died in 1906, and just two days before Christmas 1907, his son also died whilst attending Cornell University.

In later life, Serviss re-married a Madame Henriette Gros Gatier, who hailed from Cote d’Or, France, raisng her two children to adulthood. The recipient of many literary and scientific honours, Serviss was well travelled and comfortably well off for much of his long life. He died aged 78 years, survived by his second wife, stepdaughter and stepson.

Overview of the Book: Astronomy with Opera Glasses: A popular Introduction to the Study of the Starry Heavens With the Simplest of Optical Instruments, was originally published in 1888 by D. Appleton & Company, London. This author will be making use of a high-quality modern re-print by Forgotten Books. The interested reader can also access an online version of the manuscript which can be perused here. 

The book consists of a short introduction, followed by five chapters covering the four seasons, as well as a chapter dedicated to the Moon and the planets. It is a short book in the scheme of things, with just 154 pages.


Stargazing was never more popular than it is now. In every civilized country many excellent telescopes are owned and used, often to very good purpose, by persons who are not practical astronomers, but who wish to see for themselves the marvels of the sky, and who occasionally stumble upon something that is new even to professional star-gazers. Yet, notwithstanding this activity in the cultivation of astronomical studies, it is probably safe to assert that hardly one person in a hundred knows the chief stars by name, or can even recognize the principal constellations, much less distinguish the planets from the fixed stars.And of course of the intellectual pleasure that accompanies a knowledge of the stars.



Author’s comments: To me, the written and spoken word of the English language reached its zenith at the end of the 19th century, during what we might call today the Late Victorian era. Back then, morals were clear, unambiguous and understood by all and sundry. Men were men and women could be women. Granted, life was considerably harder than it is today, but it was also more purposeful with it. People had a clear idea of what their roles were in an ordered and harmonious society; a society that cherished self sufficiency and honest work. Garrett Serviss, in his elegant writings from this long forgotten era in human history, provides us with a glimpse of what the glory of the heavens meant to a man of letters. But like so many men of his ilk, Serviss can trace his earliest days to humble beginnings on a rural farmstead run by his family. The stars were a comfort to those agrarian people, who still looked to them as signposts or timepieces, marking the passage of the seasons; auguring the time of sowing, reaping and threshing.


Continuing the introduction, Serviss calls to mind the brilliant apparition of Venus in the early summer of 1887, when its great white light illumined the sky over Brooklyn Bridge. Many individuals, so Serviss informs us, thought it was the light from the Statue of Liberty. He continues;

And as Venus glowed in increasing splendor in the serene evenings of June, she continued to be mistaken for some petty artificial light, instead of the magnificent world that she was, sparkling ou there in the sunshine like a globe of burnished silver. Yet Venus as an evening star is not so rare a phenomenon that peple of intelligence should be surprised at it.

pp 2

To Serviss, the general ignorance concerning our nearest planetary neighbour provides an excellent backdrop for what he considers to be an even deeper ignorance of the stars, “the brother of our great father, the Sun.”  Serviss links this perceived indifference to the stars to the largely mathematical nature of professional astronomy which tended to intimidate those without a penchant for precision and calculation. Luckily, though Serviss was undoubtedly acquainted with some advanced technical learning, the methods in this work entirely dispense of any need for such erudition.  The heavens have a natural beauty that appeals to the human mind, whose heart has a deep longing for eternity, as King Solomon of old so eloquently expressed in the Book of Ecclesiastes (3:11).

Serviss also has the presence of mind to allay fears that a sound knowledge of the heavens can only be achieved by possessing a large and expensive telescope:

Perhaps one reason why the average educated man or woman knows so little of the starry heavens is because it is popularly supposed that only the most powerful telescopes and costly instruments of the observatory are capable of dealing with them. No greater mistake could be made. It does not require an instrument of any kind, nor much labor…..

pp 3


Author’s note: How refrseshing it is to read such words, living as we are in a world driven by the ugly sceptre of materialism. This author became aware of this as he spun his own elaborate web of materialism, acquiring ever more costly telescopes in the somewhat pretentious and utterly mistaken view that one must ‘pay to play’. Thankfully, he liberated himself from that deadly entanglement and now enjoys good but modest instruments in his pursuit of heavenly treasures.

Happy is he with his lot.


And with the aid of an opera-glass most interesting, gratifying, and, in some instances, scientifically valuable observations may be made in the heavens. I have more than once heard persons who knew nothing about the stars, and probably cared less, utter exclamations of surprise and delight when persuaded to look at certain parts of the sky with a good glass, and thereafter manifest an interest in astronomy of which they would formerly have believed themselves incapable.

pp 3-4


It is at this juncture that Serviss begins to describe the simple optical accoutrement with which he weaves his inspiring allegory of the starry heavens; the opera-glass..

First a word  about the instrument to be used. Galileo made his famous discoveries with what was, in principle of construction, simply an opera glass. The form of telescope was afterward abandoned because very high magnifying powers could not be employed  with it, and the field of view was restricted. But, on account of its brilliant illumination of objects looked at, and its convenience of form, the opera glass is still a valuable and, in some respects, unrivalled instrument of observation.

pp 4


Author’s note: By the time Serviss penned these words, the Galilean telescope was long relegated to a mere historical curiosity, owing to the introduction of the achromatic doublet which offered far superior performance in terms of correction of chromatic aberration, coma and astigmatism, and allowing far higher magnifying powers to be employed. Binoculars had ‘evolved’ * considerably too , even in the case of the humble opera glass as he describes in the next few paragraphs of the introduction.

*More a case of intelligent design than ‘blind evolution’ surely?


In choosing an opera-glass, see first that the object-glasses are achromatic, although this caution is hardly necessary, for all modern opera-glasses, worthy of the name, are made with achromatic objectives. But there are great differences in the quality of the work. If a glass shows a colored fringe around a bright object, reject it. Let the diameter of the object-glasses, which are the lenses in the end furthest from the eye, be not less than an inch and a half. The magnifying power should be at least three or four diameters.

pp 4


Author’s note: A bona fide Galilean binocular would have consisted of a singlet convex objective and a singlet concave element as the eye lens. Yet, to a contemporary of Serviss, even at the extremely low powers delivered by such a device, chromatic aberration would be very objectionable and a very poor choice for the purposes of exploring the night sky.

Serviss continues by demonstrating to the reader a simple way to estimate the magnifying power of his/her opera-glass, by focusing on a brick wall and estimating “how many bricks seen by the naked eye are required to equal in thickness one brick seen through the glass.” This is fairly easily achieved by holding the opera-glass up to one eye whilst leaving the other free to image the unmagnified view. With a few second’s practice, one will be able to simultaneously image both the magnified and naked eye image, allowing one to make a good estimate of how much magnifying power the instrument is delivering.

The instrument used by the writer in making most of the observations for this book has object-glasses 1.6 inch in diameter , and magnifying power of about 3.6 times. See that the field of view given by the two barrels of the opera-glass coincide, or blend perfectly together. If one appears to partially overlap the other when looking at a distant object, the effect is very annoying. This fault arises from the barrels of the opera-glass being placed too far apart, so that their optical centers do not coincide with the centers of the observer’s eyes.

pp 4


Author’s note: For those who are interested in the development of the binocular through history, this resource was found to be quite authoratative. There is also an excellent youtube presentation of early binoculars available for viewing here and its follow-up here.


Overview of the author’s instrument: While rummaging through an antique shop in the picturesque old English market town of Kendall, in the Lake District, Cumbria, the author’s wife spotted a curious leather case inside of which was found a dusty Galilean binocular. Prizing it out of the case, this author briefly tested it by focusing on a clock-face about fifty yards distant. The image was fairly dim, owing to the amount of dust on the lenses, but to his delight, the individual barrels were set just about at the optimal interpupillary distance to bring both eyes into a single, circular light cone. The focusing mechanism was found to be a bit stiff and clunky but still adequate for general use, and the lenses were pristine enough for him to take the decision to purchase the instrument and its brown leather case, all for the princely sum of £7.

What follows here is a series of photographs of the instrument for the interested reader.

The dusty object glasses on the binocular.


The object glasses were measured to be 44mm in diameter, or 1.73 inches; which exceed Serviss’ minimum recommendations!

The instrument has a neat pair of retractable lens shades.


The instrument had a nice set of retractable lens shades. which could also double up as makeshift dew shields, which would ultimately come in handy during longer periods of field use.

The instruments were apparently manufactured in France.


The instrument has a “Made in France” inscription annexed to the left-hand barrel of the binocular but no manufacturer name was apparent. Curiously, the high-quality leather case accompanying the binocular is stamped “Made in England.” Somewhat puzzled, more inscriptions were found whilst racking the focus wheel outwards;

Racking the eyepieces outward uncovers a “War Office” stanp on one of the barrels.


When the eye lenses were racked outwards using the central focusing mechanism, the inscription “War Office” was found on the left barrell whilst the right barrel had ” Model” but no further information could be discerned.

With this information, it became somewhat clear that these were World War I binoculars. Since France had a technological edge over Britain in the production of high-quality optical glass up to the beginning of the 20th century, it was reasonably assumed that there was a division of labour amongst these war-time allies, with the leather case being manufactured in England. Consulting an online forum dedicated to the Great War, confirmed the author’s suspicion of the division of labour adopted by Britain and France during World War I. Ascribing a date of manufacture corresponding to World War I was further substantiated by the uncoated lenses used in the instrument. Anti-reflection coating technology was still a few decades ahead when these binoculars were being made.

The instrument is constructed mostly of metal parts but the lens shades and the central focusing wheel look as though they were made of the earliest commercial synthetic polymer, Bakelite, which was used extensively after 1909. Source here.

The author then went about dismantling the binocular to clean the optical surfaces. Intriguingly, the instrument was very easy to take apart so that lenses could be cleaned before use;

The innards of the Galilean binocular with a simple cylindrical light baffle placed immediately ahead of the eye lens.


Before and after cleaning the object glasses.


After carefully cleaning the lenses and putting it all back together again, and tightening up the screw which adjusts the tension on the focusing wheel, the author was delighted by how much esier it was to use, with brighter and more crisp images to boot. The instrument was now ready for field use.

Preliminary testing of the instrument  allowed this author to estimate its magnifying power at about 3.5x, just about the same as Serviss’ original instrument. Further tests on the night sky allowed him to estimate the field of view offered up by the instrument. Turning to the handle of the Ploughshare showed that the field glass was able to just about fit the stars Mizar and Alioth in the same field. Yet another test showed that the instrument was able to fit most of the main ‘V’ of the Hyades star cluster in Taurus, allowing him to estimate its field of view to be ~ 4.5 +/- 0.1 angular degrees; considerably less than a modern binocular but adequate enough to pursue this project.

There is no facility to adjust the interpupillary distance on this instrument or to adjust one ocular independently of the other, but this was not found to be an issue. Clearly, this was a no-frills instrument designed for basic use. There is no lavish overlaying of mother-of-pearl or some other ornate covering on this instrument like so many other beautiful Galilean binoculars dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century, but this is entirely in keeping with its intended use. And while it would be easy to get carried away, as it were, and imagine that the instrument was actually used on the battle front, this author was content with entertaining the idea that it might have only seen use by ordinary civilians.

In use, the ‘opera-glasses’ are not too lightweight. If they were, they would pick up the jitters from the author’s hand-holding all too easily but nor are they too heavy to render prolonged field use a chore. There is a lot to be said for field glasses that are ‘just right.’

The author was over the Moon with his purchase. This was a genuine example of an instrument described by Serviss, allowing this author to authenticate the literary descriptions proferred in the work. This is an important issue going forward; to really experience the visual sensations of a Victorian amateur, one ideally has to use an instrument from the same period, or as near as can be. There is little point in claiming that one has the heart of a Victorian observer without also using instruments that would have been right at home in the same period. Doing it any other way is little more than cheating lol!

Now we are ready to enjoy the night sky as Serviss may have viewed it through his simple opera-glasses. Since each chapter of the book can be enjoyed independently of the others, for convenience, this author will commence with an exploration of the autumnal (fall) night sky (Chapter III) since this is the season in which this blog was first initiated.


Chapter III The Stars of Autumn

Covering pages 60 through 88

It is certainly true that a contemplation of the unthinkable vastness of the universe, in the midst of which we dwell upon a speck illuminated by a spark, is calculated to make all terrestrial affairs appear contemptibly insignificant. We can not wonder that men for ages regarded the earth as the center, and the heavens with their lights as tributary to it, for to have thought otherwise, in those times, would have been to see things from the point of view of a superior intelligence. It has taken a vast amount of experience and knowledge to convince men of the parvitude of themselves and their belongings. So, in all ages, they have applied a terrestrial measure to the universe, and imagined they could behold human affairs reflected in the heavens and human interests setting the gods together by the ears. This is clearly shown in the story of the constellations.

pp 61

Garrett Serviss, writing as he was at the end of the 19th century, held fairly typical ideas for his time regarding the plurality of worlds. He, like so many of his contemporaries, believed the vastness of the starry heaven pointed to humanity’s mediocrity (‘parvitude’) in the scheme of things. Although he does not explicitly express it, he probably believed life was commonplace in the Universe. Back then, scientists were totally ignorant of the sheer complexity of even the simplest living cell- equivalent to that observed in the largest of human cities –  and so was not in a position to see the incredible unlikelihood of something as complex as a living thing coming into being without the mediation of an intelligent agency. Today, the consensus appears to be shifting considerably from this scientifically naive view of the ubiquity of life on other worlds, especially now since a great deal more scientific evidence has come to the fore strongly suggesting that life on Earth did not evolve in any Darwinian sense. As this author has explained elsewhere, Serviss’ view of humanity as “contemptibly insignificant” is demonstrably false. We are, almost certainly, the only sentient creatures ever to have been created aside from the angels (the host of heaven).

The tremendous truth that on a starry night we look, in every direction, into an almost endless vista of suns beyond suns and system upon systems, was too overwhelming for comprehension  by the inventors of the constellations. So they assumed themselves, like imaginative children, as they were, by tracing the outlines of men and beasts formed by those pretty lights , the stars. They turned the starry heavens into a scroll filled with pictured stories of mythology. Four of the constellations with which we are going to deal in this chapter are particualrly interesting on this account. ….The four constellations to which I refer bear the names of Andromeda, Perseus, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, and are sometimes called, collectively, the Royal Family.

pp 62-63.


Author’s note: The constellations that Serviss has chosen to discuss at length are prominent in the skies of early autumn and are especially well placed at the latitude this author observes from:- 56 degrees north. Indeed, they are better placed in his skies than they were for Serviss, who presumably would have observed from mid-northern latitudes and afford a wealth of objects that can be studied with the opera-glass.


Maps 14 and 15, presented on page 62 and 64, respectively, highlight the main constellations visible at mid-northern latitudes throughout September and October. Only the far southerly constellations are out of reach of the author’s gaze. Before discussing the Royal Family, Serviss enters into a brief but fascinating discussion on the southerly constellation of Capricornus, the most diminutive constellation of the zodiac,with a particular mention to both Alpha and Beta Capricorni. He writes:

The stars Alpha, called Giedi, and Beta, called Dabih, will be recognized, and a keen eye will perceive that Alpha really consists of two stars. They are about six minutes of arc apart, and are of the third and the fourth magnitude, respectively.These stars, which to the naked eye  appear almost blended into one, really have no physical connection to each other, and are slowly drifting apart.

pp 65


Serviss then discusses the star Beta Capricorni.:

The star Beta, or dabih, is also a double star. The companion is of a beautiful blue colour, generally described as “sky blue.” Is is of the seventh magnitude , while the larger is of  magnitude three and a half. The latter is golden yellow. The blue of the small star can be seen with either an opera- or field glass.

pp 65-6


Author’s note: This author has always referred to Alpha Capricorni as ‘Algedi’, which in Arabic means ‘little kid.’ Serviss, on the other hand, chooses to use a variation of this appellation; ‘Giedi.’ Being very low in the skies of central Scotland, the duplicitous nature of this star is exceedingly difficult to discern with the naked eye, even on the steadiest of nights. Indeed, they are just about half the separation of Mizar & Alcor in the handle of the Ploughshare, for comparison. The opera-glass however, makes light work of showing two yellow suns, the brighter being +3.6 (Alpha-1) and the fainter +4.3 (Alpha-2). This is a wonderfully complex system for double- and mutiple- star enthusiasts located at more favourable latitudes further south, where each of these stars is found to be double in a small telescope. Alpha 1 & 2 are known as an optical double, as the stars are located at greatly different distances; 106 and 560 light years, respectively, and by chance alone are located along our line of sight

In the same field about 2.5 degrees further south, you will be able to make out the golden tint of third magnitude Dabih (Beta Capricorni). In modern 10 x 50s, it too is revealed to be a double star, the companion being of the sixth magnitude of glory. Alas, the low power of the opera-glass, as well as the large brightness differential between the two, not to mention its low elevation above the horizon, makes this very difficult, if well nigh impossible to discern. What can you make out?


On page 65, Serviss also mentions a curious thought entertained by Sir John Herschel regarding faint companions to bright stars:

A suggestion by Sir John Herschel, concerning one of these faint companions, that it shines by reflected light, adds to the interest, for if the suggestion is well founded the little star must, of course, be actually a planet, and granting that, then some of the other faint points of light seen there are probably planets too.

pp 65

This is clearly an erroneous conclusion, as Serviss points out:

It must be said that the probabilities are against Herschel’s suggestion. The faint stars more likely shine by their own light.

pp 65

This just goes to show that even great astronomers can be dead wrong! Having said that, it is possible to see Earth-sized objects at stellar distances. Take the famous ‘pup,’ the faint companion to the Dog Star, Sirius B, for example, which can be seen in a 3-inch telescope in the current epoch. The companion, a white dwarf star, is incredibly small and dense but highly luminous!


With the most powerful glass at your disposal, sweep from the star Zeta eastward a distance somewhat greater than that separating Alpha and Beta, and you will find a fifth-magnitude star beside a little nebulous spot. This is the cluster known as 30 M, one of those sun-swarms that overhwelm the mind of the contemplative observer with astonishment, and especially remarkable in this case for the apparent vacancy of the heavens immediately surrounding the cluster….

pp 66


Author’s note: Throughout much of the 19th- and early 20th centuries, the Messier objects were denoted by a number followed by the capital letter, ‘M,’ in contrast to today, where the letter ‘M’ precedes the number. M30 (a bright, 7th magnitude globular cluster located some 26,000 light years away) can indeed be picked up as a distinctly non-stellar blob in an opera-glass but its full glory can only be appreciated with a modest sized telescope and high magnifications. The fifth magnitude star Serviss is likely referring to is 41 Capricorni.


Serviss then moves from Capricorn to Aquarius, situated to the northeast of the latter and more accessible to observers located at high northerly latitudes. Serviss launches into an interesting discussion of the mythology related to the celestial Water-Bearer, both in ancient cultures and in more recent Arabic lore.

The star Tau is double and presents a beautiful contrast of color, one star being white and the other reddish orange- two solar systems, it may be, apparently neighbors as seen from the earth, in one of which daylight is white and in the other red!

pp 68

Tau Aquarii is indeed a beautiful and easy sight to behold in the opera-glass, with both stars being separated by about 0.65 angular degrees. Serviss’ fecund imagination goes to work here as he rightly considers the colour these stars cast on the landscape of hypothetical planets that might exist there.

Serviss then discusses the fascinating 8th magnitude object in Aquarius that we know today as the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009), an appellation first bestowed upon it by the Third Earl of Rosse (Birr, Ireland).

Point a good glass upon the star marked Nu, and you will see, somewhat less than a degree and a half to the west of it, what appears to be a faint star of between the seventh and eighth magnitudes. You will have to look sharp to see it. It is with your mind’s eye that you must gaze, in order to perceive the wonder here hidden in the depths of space. The faint speck is the nebula, unrivalled for interest by many of the larger and more conspicuous objects of that kind. Lord Rosse’s great telescope has shown that in form it resembles the planet Saturn; in other words, that it consists apparently of a ball surrounded by a ring……..If Laplace’s nebular hypothesis, or any of the modifications, represents the process of formation of a solar system, then we may fairly conclude that such a process is now actually in operation  in this nebula in Aquarius, where a vast ring of nebulous matter appears to have separated off from the spherical mass within it.

pp 68-9


Author’s note: The visualisation of the Saturn Nebula with the opera glass is certainly possible but it only presents as a very faint 8th magnitude ‘field star’. Serviss, writing at the time when modern astrophysics was in its infancy, had no idea that what he was describing was not, in fact, a solar system in formation, but one rather that was in the process of dying. The Saturn Nebula is a prominent planetary nebula, a geriatric star in its final death throes, as it sheds its outer atmosphere to the great, cold dark of interstellar space.


On page 69, Serviss invites us to examine the star Delta Aquarii with the opera glass. At magnitude + 3.3, it shines with a blue-white hue. It is here, so Serviss informs us, that Tobias Mayer ” narrowly escaped making a discovery that would have anticipated that which a quarter century later made the name of Sir William Herschel world-renowned.” In 1756, the planet Uranus passed very close to this star but it moved so slowly that it escaped his notice.


Author’s note: The story of Uranus is really the story of ‘near misses.’ The historical archives reveal many such ‘nearly never made it’ sightings of the 7th planet orbiting the Sun. In fact, Galileo himself almost certainly sighted Uranus in the early 17th century, but did not realise its significance.


Above Aquarius you will find the the constellation of Pegasus. It is conspicuously marked by four stars of about the second magnitude, which shine at the corners of a large square, called the Great Square of Pegasus. This figure is some fiften degrees square, and at once attracts the eye, there being few stars visisble within the quadrilateral, and no large ones in the immediate neighborhood to distract attention from it

pp 69


Author’s note: The Great Square of Pegasus is all the more remarkable for its great paucity of bright stars. Indeed, this is precisely the reason why it stands out so prominently in autumn skies. How many stars can you make out within the body of the square? From my reasonably dark site I can make out about, this author can make out maybe a half dozen stars ranging in magnitide from +4 to +5.5, most prominent of which are Upsilon, Tau, Psi and Phi, which vary in glory from +4.4 to +5.1. Additionally, when the constellation is higher up in the sky, and with good transparency and no Moon, additional members can be made out with some concentration; 71 Pegasi ( magniude +5.4)  can be glimpsed near the centre of the square and 75 Pegasi (+5.5)  just a few degrees further south. 85 Pegasi might also be glimpsed just above Algenib (Gamma Andromedae) near the border with Pisces.  Many more are possible from the darkest skies, however. Indeed, counting the number of stars within the Great Square that are visible to the naked eye remains a good test of how dark and transparent your skies are. However, even a thin veneer of haze will all but extinguish the fainter stars visible to the naked eye on the best nights.


Although Pegasus presents a striking appearance to the unassisted eye on account of its great square, it contains little to attract the observer with an opera-glass. It will prove interesting to sweep with the glass carefully over the space within the square , which is comparitively barren to the naked eye but in which many small stars  will be revealed, of whose exstence the naked-eye observer would be unaware. The star marked Pi is an interesting double, which can be separated by a good eye without artificial aid, and which, with an opera-glass, presents a fine appearance.

pp 70

Sweeping with the opera-glass within the confines of the Great Square is still a worthwhile endeavour, where many fainter stars of magnitude 7 and 8 come into view. Though Serviss does mention it, the opera-glass is just the perfect optical accoutrement to properly discern the colour differences between the stars marking the vertices of the Great Square. To this author’s eye, only first magnitude stars clearly reveal their colours, but with the opera-glass you’ll be able to make out that Markab (Alpha Pegasi) and Algenib (Gamma) are lovely blue-white in hue, whilst Scheat (Beta) has, in comparison, a soft ruddy colour. Another beautiful target is Enif (Epsilon), located in the south-western edge of the Flying Horse, near the border with the diminutive constellations of Delphinus and  Equuleus. Owing to its rather irregular variability, it can sometimes manifest as the brightest star in Pegasus, outshining all the others in glory, with its fetching orange complexion. Though a little beyond the low powers offered by the opera-glass, a larger field glass should also reveal Enif’s wide and faint (magnitude 8.6) companion.

It is somewhat surprising that Serviss fails to mention M 15, a bright, sixth magnitude globular cluster just off to the northwest of Enif. Appearing as a fuzzy star in the opera-glass, averted vision should allow you to see it swell to nearly twice the size it appears using direct vision.

Finally, another target worth seeking out is the fifth magnitude star, 51 Pegasi, a sun-like (G class) star located roughly midway between Alpha and Beta Pegasi. Situated just 50 light years from the solar system, 51 Pegasi was shown to have a planet about half the mass of Jupiter circling its parent star just a few million miles from its fiery surface. Fascinated as he was in the ‘plurality of worlds,’ were he alive today, Serviss would most certainly have waxed lyrical about this star system!

Serviss moves from Pegasus into Cetus, the Celestial Whale, and almost immediately launches into an interesting discussion on its most famous luminary; Mira (Omicron Ceti):

By far the most interesting object in Cetus is the star Mira. This is a famous variable- a sun that sometimes shines a thousand-fold more brilliantly than at others! It changes from the second magnitude to the ninth or tenth, its period from maximum to minimum being about eleven months. During about five months of that time it is completely invisible to the naked eye; then it begins to appear again, slowly increasing in brightness for some three months, until it sjines as a star of the second magnitude, being then as bright as, if not brighter than, the most brilliant stars in the constellation. It retains this brilliance for about two weeks, and then begins to fade again, and, within three months, once more disappears.

pp 71-72


Author’s note: Mira is a wonderful subject for the opera glass. It was discovered to be variable by the Dutch astronomer, David Fabricius in 1596, barely a decade before the telescope first made its mark on European civilization. At its brightest, it is a handsome ruddy colour in the opera glass and, thanks to a number of suitable ‘reference stars’ of fixed brightness in its vicinity, which vary in glory from the 6th to the 8th magnitudes, they can be used to monitor its changing luminosity over the weeks and months.It’s period is 332 days.


Serviss explains that Mira is somewhat irregular in its maximum brightness though. For example, he informs us that in 1779 it shone with a brilliance more reminiscent of a first magnitude star. Acknowledging the Sun’s minor variability, Serviss supposes that the nature of its variability is attributed to much more prominent star spots (analogous to the sunpots on our own star) on its fiery surface:

Knowing that our Sun is a variable star-though variable only to a slight degree, its variability being due to the spots that appear upon its surface in a period of about eleven years- we possess some light that may be cast upon the mystery of Mira’s variations. It seems not improbable that, in the case of Mira, the surface of the star at the maximum of spottedness is covered to an enormously greater extent than occurs during our own sun-spot maxima, so that the light of the star, instead of being merelty dimmed to an almost imperceptibe extent , as with our sun, is almost blotted out.

pp 72



Author’s note: Serviss was wrong in his explanation of Mira’s extraordinary variability. Its variability is actually caused by its sinusoidal expansion and contraction, from 400 to 500 times the diameter of our own Sun. It is this change in radius and temperature that gives rise to its variability. Mira is at the latest stage of its evolutionary journey and, as a result, is shedding its outer atmosphere to interstellar space.


Serviss wonders whether the antics of Mira might reflect the fate of our own star in the aeons to come:

We might even go so far as to say that possibly Mira presents to us an example of what our sun will be in the course of time, as the dead an barren moon shows us, as in a magician’s glass, the approaching fate of the earth. Fortunately, human life is a mere span in comparison with the aeons of cosmic existence, and so we need have no fear that either we or our descendants  for thousands of generations shall have to play the tragic role of Cambell’s ” Last Man,” an endeavor to keep up a stout heart amid the crash of time by meanly boasting to the perishing sun, whose rays have nurtured us, that, though his proud race has ended, we have confident anticipations of immortality. I trust that when man makes his exit from this terrestrial stage, it will not be in the contemptible act of kicking a fallen benefactor.

pp 73


Author’s note: Like human beings, stars are at their most unstable when very young and very old. In middle age, they enjoy much greater stability. Our Sun, now in its stable mid-life, is the least variable star known to astronomical science. Greater variability would be very dangerous for the life that teems on this planet. Is it a coincidence that humankind arose on the scene during this period of maximum solar stability? I think not. This is the best possible time to launch a global civilisation, where billions of human beings can enjoy the benefits of great scientific advances that make our lives comfortable. It was planned that way and can only last for a definite amount of time before things go downhill for one and all. The Biblical authors affirm that the Earth is not our ultimate home;

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city that is to come.

Hebrews 13:14


The text on autumn skies moves from Cetus into Pisces, a large and sprawling constellation snaking its way from ‘under’ the square of Pegasus (as seen from the northern hemisphere), northeastwards where it borders with Andromeda, the Chained Princess. Beginning with some mythology associated with the constellation, Serviss then suggests we sweep our opera glasses from northeast to southwest and examine the many delightful stars that fall into the field of view:

You will find it very interesting to take your glass and , beginning with the attractive little group in the Northern Fish, follow the windings of the ribbon, with its wealth of tiny stars, to the Western Fish. When you have arrived at that point, sweep well over the sky in that neighborhood, and particularly around and under the stars Iota, Theta, Lambda and Kappa. If you are using a powerful glass, you will be surprised and delighted by what you see.

pp 74


Author’s note: The most distinctive feature of this constellaton is the attractive loop of seven stars situated at its southwestern edge known as the Circlet. The field of view offered up by the opera glass used by this author is not large enough to encompass them all, but a modern, wide-angle binocular can certainly do so. Centre Kappa and Lambda Piscium in the field. Just a short distance south of these stars lies the spot where the Sun crosses the celestial equator, heralding the arrival of Spring in the northern hemisphere. While you’re there, it’s worth checking out a pretty little asterism known as Alessi J23407+0757 situated just over two degrees north of Iota Piscium. Appearing quite smudgy in the opera glass owing to its small image scale, it makes a delightful telescopic sight consisting of about half a dozen stars.


Serviss leaves Pisces and then moves into Aries, the Ram, sandwiched between Taurus and Andromeda, where he invites us to explore its two brightest luminaries, set about four degrees apart; Alpha Arietis(Hamal) and Beta Arietis (Sheratan), both of the second magnitude. They present an interesting case of colour contrast, with Hamal shining with a soft orange hue while Sheratan is revealed as blue-white in the opera glass. On page 75, Serviss gives mention to Gamma Arietis(Mesarthim). He writes:

Gamma Arietis, is interesting as it was the first telescopic double star ever discovered. Its duplicity was detected by Dr. Hooke while watching the passage of a comet near the star in 1664.

pp 75


Author’s note: The opera glass will pick up a faint star ( 7 Arietis) just west of Mesarthim, but this is not the duplicity Serviss speaks of. In a small telescope using low power, magnitude 3.9 Mesarthim is seen to be composed of two stars, both white and of nearly equal magnitude; 4.6 and 4.7.


At the bottom of page 75, Serviss returns to one of the themes he raises earlier in the chapter, by finally introducing the constellations that comprise the ‘Royal Family,’ consisting of Perseus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia, all featured on Map 17 on page 77 of the text. After discussing their interesting mythology, he finally begins the astronomical discussion of these constellations on page 79, where he notes the great riches to be found within their confines;

The starry riches of these constellations are well matched with their high mythological repute. Lying in and near the Milky-Way, they are particularly interesting to the observer with an opera glass. Besides, they include several of the most celebrated wonders of the firmament.

pp 79

Serviss begins with Andromeda and its greatest attraction to the possessor of an opera glass; the Great Nebula (M 31):

In searching for picturesque objects in Andromeda, begin with Alpheratz and the groups forming the hands. Below the girdle will be seen a rather remarkable arrangement of small stars in the mounth of the Northern Fish. Now follow up the line of the girdle to the star Nu. If your glass has a pretty wide field, your eye will immediately catch the glimmer of the Great Nebula in Andromeda in the same field with the star.

 pp 79-80


Author’s note: The “Great Nebula” in Andromeda is indeed a fine sight in the author’s opera glass, where its central bulge and extended spiral arms look rather like two fried eggs set back to back.


He continues on page 80 to inform us that this deep sky object  is the “oldest or earliest discovered of the nebulae, and with the exception of that in Orion, is the grandest visible in this hemisphere.”

An illustration of what the Andromeda Nebula looks like in an opera glass is provided on page 80, together with an early reference to averted vision:

By turning the eyes aside, the nebula can be seen, extended as a faint, whispy light, much elongated on either side of the brighter nucleus.

pp 80


Author’s note:  We have a tendency today to think that many of the more advanced skills employed by visual observers are essentially modern developments. And yet Serviss clearly reveals to us that the eminently useful activity of using averted vision (using the night-sensitive rod cells situated either side of the fovea)  was known and used to good effect at the end of the 19th century.


On page 80 through 81, Serviss described the curious phenomenon of a nova seen superimposed on the Andromeda Nebula in 1885, which flared up suddenly and faded back to invisibility in the course of just a few months. He does not however, reveal the interesting story of its discovery.


Author’s note: What Serviss is almost certainly referring to is SN 1885, which was first chanced upon by the French  astronomer; Ludovic Gully, on the evening of August 17 1885 from Rouen, France, during a public stargazing event. Intriguingly, Gully dismissed the event as an artifact of ineffective baffling of his telescope from scattered moonlight and so did not follow it up and report it to the broader astronomical community. Just two evenings later, it was apparently seen by the Irish amateur astronomer, Isaac Ward(1834-1916), based in Belfast, who described its appearance as ruddy and with an estimated magntude brightness of + 7.

The Northern Irish astronomer, Isaac Ward (1834-1916), seen here sat beside the 11cm achromatic refractor he allegedly used to observe SN 1885A. Image credit: Wiki Commons.


SN 1885A was picked up by Ernst Hartwig, based at Dorpat (Tartu) Observatory, Estonia, on the evening of August 20 1885, when its existence was finally communicated to the international community. Despite attempts by both Gully and Ward to claim it as their own, the discovery of ‘S Andromedae’  (the common name soon bestowed upon it), was credited to Hartwig. SN 1885A was a supernova, which reached its maximum brightness of +5.85 on August 21 1885 after which it faded back to magnitude 14 a year later. More historical information regarding the object can be viewed here. SN 1885A retains the distinction of being the only supernova event to have been viewed in the Andromeda Galaxy to this day.


That Serviss was largely ignorant of the true nature of SN 1885A  is no surprise. Astronomers knew very little in these early days considering how massive stars end their lives. What is more, we also gain a glimpse of how small the cosmos was thought to be at the end of the 19th century. Concerning the ‘nova’ in Andromeda he writes;

Although it appeared to be beside the bright nucleus of the nebula, it is likely that it was really hundreds or thousands of millions of miles either this side or the other side of it.

pp 80-81.

On page 81, Serviss encourages users of the opera glass to conduct sweeps through Andromeda eastwards towards Cassiopeia and Perseus. As we do so, the richness of star fields increases dramatically as our portal on the heavens rejoins the meandering river of stars that is the Miky Way. On page 82, Serviss pauses to consider Gamma Andromedae, which presents in  a comely golden hue in the opera glass. He also points out that this is the spot in the sky that demarks the radiant of the Biela (Andromedid) meteor shower, so called after the astronomer who first discovered a short period comet that graced the inner solar during the mid 19th century.


Author’s note: Serviss was also a keen telescopist and indeed published a splendid book (mentioned earlier in passing) dedicated to the sights within reach of a small telescope. What’s more, this author imagines him using both the opera glass and the telescope profitably to bring the many treasures of the northern sky within reach of his eyes. Serviss alerts us to the beautiful colour contrast triple system, Gamma Andromedae (pp 82), which is a delightful sight in a telescope employing moderate powers. Before leaving Andromeda, be sure to check out the terrific binocular triple, Nu Andromedae. Observers with the keenest eyesight should try their hand at seeing this triple system with the naked eye.


Next let us turn to Perseus. The bending row of stars marking the center of this constellation  is very striking and brilliant. The brightest star in the constellation is Alpha, or Algenib, in the center of the row. The head of Perseus is toward Cassiopeia, and in his left hand he grasps the head of Medusa, which hangs down in such a way that its principal star, or Algol, forms a right angle with Algenib and Almach in Andromeda.

pp 83.

Perseus, the classical Hero, presents some of the most spectacular sights to the user of an opera glass. The opulent splashing of stars around Alpha Persei (Algenib) is presented in the star map on page 84 of the text and cries out for exploration. After discussing the Demon Star, Algol, Serviss turns his attention to the region of sky around Algenib:

Turn now to the bright star Algenib, or Alpha Persei. You will find with the glass an exceedingly attractive spectacle there. In my note-book I find this entry, made while sweeping over Perseus for materials for this chapter: “The field about Alpha is one of the finest in the sky for an opera glass. Stars conspicuously ranged in curving lines and streams. A host follows Alpha from the east and south.” The picture on page 84 will give the reader some notion of the exceeding beauty of this field of stars, and of the singular manner in which they are grouped, as it were, behind their leader. A field glass increases the beauty of the scene.

pp 85-6.


Author’s note: The reader will note that Serviss refers to Alpha Persei as ‘Algenib’ rather than the more familiar name of ‘Mirfak’ used by astronomers today.

Serviss took notes while observing; an essential activity for any serious observer!

In October, Perseus rides very high in the sky at the author’s location, making it especially well placed for observation. The stream of stars around Mirfak referred to by Servis is known today as the Alpha Persei moving cluster (or association). Centring the opera glass on Mirfak reveals about a dozen stars of magnitue 6 or greater within a two degree radius anda few more ‘outliers’ can be picked up by virtue of the glass’ larger field of view (~4.5 degrees). This remarkable clustering of star light presents one of the most spectacular sights in all the northern heavens using a field glass. Indeed, so large and sprawling is this cluster that it is somewhat lost in the field of view offered up by even the smallest rich field ‘scope!

Modern binoculars have come an awful long way since Serviss penned his words. Today, one can obtain very decent binoculars for a modest price offering much higher contrast, magnification and field of view than anything Serviss could have dreamed of! The author’s 8 x 42 binocular, for example, samples a field fully 7.3 degrees wide, and with a higher magnification can pull out considerably fainter members than any early 20th century field glass. This instrument makes observing through the old field glass more like looking through a straw than anything else!

Isn’t modern technology wonderful!

This author considers it a great blessing that he is able to use such a wonderful optical instrument from the 21st century!

Intelligent development: a modern binocular (right) exceeds the power of old opera glasses by a huge margin.


Observing the Alpha Persei Association with a modern binocular cannot fail to introduce a deep sense of awe concerning the vast beauty of the heavens!


The reader will find a starry cluster marked on Map 17 as the “Great Cluster.” This object can be easily detected by the naked eye, resembling a whisp of luminous cloud. It marks the hand in which Perseus clasps his diamond sword, and, with the aid of a telescope of medium power, it is one of the most marvelously beautiful objects in the sky- a double swarm of stars, bright enough to be clearly distinguished from one another, and yet so numerous as to dazzle the eye with their lively beams.

pp 86

Serviss is referring to the famous Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) located about mid-way between Perseus and Cassiopeia. This is undoubtedly one of the crown jewels in all the heavens, and while it can be seen as a foggy whisp with the naked eye, any optical aid makes it look immesaurably better. Serviss writes;

An opera glass does not possess sufficient power ” to resolve” this cluster, but it gives a startling suggestion of its half-hidden magnificence….”

pp 86


Author’s note: The view of the Double Cluster is considerably improved with an opera glass, but it is much better seen with decent aperture telescopes. This author observes it pretty much routinely for much of the year and finds that the view becomes better and better the larger the telescope is employed. There will be a natural limit though, as the largest telescopes will have a field of view that becomes too small to sample the full glory of this celebrated deep sky object. The best view he has had in recent years is through a 12″ f/5 Newtonian reflector using a 34mm  wide angle eyepiece serving up a power of 45x in a 1.5 degree true field, but a very close second is at 59x in the same telescope in a one degree field.The latter is slightly less favoured, as it restricts some of the hinterland to these clusters from being comfortably observed.


Nearby, about mid-way between Algol and the lovely golden Gamma Andromedae (Almach), the opera glass makes light work of picking up the open cluster also mentioned by Serviss as’ 34 M’. When high in the sky, during October and November, one can make out perhaps a half dozen of its brightest stellar members and perhaps twice that with a 10 x 50 binocular. Telescopically, M 34 is reasonably rewarding, presenting a rich scattering of white, yellow and orange stars at moderate medium powers.

Serviss next invites us to explore the rich stellar archipelagos of Cassiopeia, easily made out as ‘wonky W’, as this author affectionately refers to it. Serviss writes:

Here the Milky-Way is so rich that the observer hardly needs any guidance, he is sure to stumble upon interesting sights for himself. The brightest stars are generally represented as indicating the outlines of the chair or throne in which the queen sits, the star Zeta being in her head. Look at Zeta with a good, field glass, and you will see a singular and brilliant array of stars near it in a broken half circle, which may suggest the notion of a crown.

pp 86-87.

From here, Serviss invites the reader to visit a locus very near the star Kappa Cassiopeiae, denoted by a very small circle on Map 17 ( page 76). A number is assigned to this locus:- 1572. Intriguinginly, this little spot makes Serviss’ mind races:

This shows the spot where the famous temporary star, which has of late been frequently referred to as the “Star Of Bethlehem,” appeared. It was seen in 1572 , and carefully observed by the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe. It seems to have suddenly burst forth with a brilliance that outshone every other star in the heavens, not excepting Sirius itself. But its supremacy was short-lived. In a few months it had sunk to the second magnitude. It continued to grow fainter, exhibiting some remarkable changes of color in the meantime, and in less than a year and half it disappeared.

pp 87.

Serviss goes on to say that in 1264 and 945 AD, similar outbursts of brightness were recorded at the same location in the heavens. Serviss seems to suggests that a legend grew up around this ‘nova’  and that it could also be the location of a star that burst forth during the time of the birth of Christ. Yet, Serviss exercises caution when entertaining such legends;

In short, there are two many suppositions and assumptions involved to allow any credence being given to the theory of the periodicity of Tycho’s wonderful star. At the same time, nobody can say it is impossible that the star should appear again, and so it may be interesting to the reader to know where to look for it.

pp 87-88.


Author’s note: Serviss is justified in expressing caution in attributing the Star of Bethlehem to Tycho’s Star. As a Bible believing Christian, the ‘Star’ was undoubtedly a real phenomenon, as were Christ’s teachings, miracles, death and resurrection. Best to leave it at that! No harm done in visiting this spot in Cepheus from time to time!


On page 88, Serviss brings his tour of the autumn sky to an end by briefly considering a couple of stars in Cepheus; particularly Herschel’s Garnet Star, Mu Cephei, the deep sanguine hues of which will delight the user of an opera glass, as well as the wonderful Delta Cephei, a celebrated double and variable star, the components of which are quite widely spaced. Serviss writes:

With a good eye, a steady hand and a clear glass, magnifying not less than six diameters, you can separate them, and catch the contrasted tints of their light.

pp 88


Author’s note: The separation of Delta Cephei A & B has hardly changed since Serviss penned his words. Today they are separated by 41,” precisely the number proffered by Serviss at the end of the 19th century (see page 88). Try as he may, this author has not been able to prize the components apart using his low power opera glass. Even his steadily-held 8 x 42 failed the test. He has however found it no trouble to separate the components using a power of about 15x in a 80mm shorttube achromatic telescope on a steady night with good transparency. But one can easily monitor the changing brightness of the Cepheid variable (Delta Cephei A) with an opera glass, which gradually fades from magnitude 3.5 back to 4.4 over a period of about five days and 9 hours.


Chapter IV  The Stars of Winter

Covering pages 89 through 117.

I have never beheld the first indications of the rising of Orion without a peculiar feeling of awakened expectation, like that of one who sees the curtain rise upon a drama of absorbing interest. And certainly the magnificent company of the winter constellations, of which Orion is the chief, make their entrance upon the scene in a manner that may be described as almsot dramatic. First in the east come the world-renowned Pleiades. About the same time Capella, one of the most beautiful of stars, is seen flashing above the north-eastern horizon. These are the sparkiling ushers to the coming spectacle. In an hour the fiery gleam of Aldebaran appears at the edge of the dome below the Pleiades, a star noticeable among a thousand for its color alone, besides being one of the brightest of the heavenly host. The observer familiar with the constellations knows, when he sees this red star which marks the eye of the angry bull, Taurus, that just behind the horizon stands Orion with starry shield and upraised club to meet the charge of his gigantic enemy. With Aldebaran rises the beautiful V-shaped group of the Hyades.

pp 89

Despite being separated by over a century of time, Serviss’ opening lines in this chapter covering the winter sky, immediately resonate with this author, as though he were standing right beside him on a clear and dark winter evening. Orion is indeed the great herald of the hyemal heavens, its august form dominating the meridian from well after midnight in early December but arriving increasingly earlier as the winter progresses.

As well as hosting a riot of bright stars crying out for observation with an opera glass, Orion’s brilliant luminaries – Rigel and Betelgeuse – are accompanied by a host of brilliant suns that decorate the heavens: Sirius and Procyon dominate the sky low in the southeast, and higher up, fiery red Aldebaran in Taurus, and creamy yellow Capella, the jewel of Auriga. The heavenly twins, Castor & Pollux boldly announce the arrival of Gemini, and over in the west at sunset, the white and blue-white luminaries of summer still make their presence felt; Altair in Aqulia, Deneb in Cygnus and Vega corruscating wildly in the denser air at lower altitude.

This rich assortment of bright stars create the unmistakable impression that the winter sky is darker than at other times of the year. And, indeed, there is more than a grain of truth to this assertion; for it is at this time of year that our gaze begins to carry us away from the extremely bright centre of our galaxy, and faces the Perseus spiral arm of our Milky Way.

Of such an array of bright winter stars, Serviss believes it is unrivalled in all the heavens;

The heavens contain no other naked-eye view comparable with this great array, not even the glorious celestial region where the Southern Cross shines supreme, being equal to it in splendor.

pp 91.


From his observing site in the populous borough of Brooklyn, Serviss provides a historically interesting titbit regarding the encroach of light pollution in urban settings:

To comprehend the real glories of the celestial sphere in the depth of winter, one should spend a few clear nights in the rural districts of New York and new England.

pp 91


Author’s note: Clearly, by the 1890s, light pollution was becoming a signifiant issue for urban dwellers in comparison to the darker skies of earlier times.


The reader is referred to maps 18 and 19  feaured on pages 92 and 93 of the text. Serviss begins with the large and winding constellation Eridanus the celestial River, so named by the ancient Greeks, though the Egyptians intended that it should really represent the majestic Nile. Only the northernmost stars are visible from the author’s far northerly latitude, where the opera glass sweeps up a good assortment of its stars including Beta, which forms part of the ‘foot’ or Orion near Rigel, but also the roughly linear array of stars comprising Gamma, Pi, Epsilon and Delta Eridani.

Fluvius (Latin for ‘river’) Eridanus, as it is affectionately known to this author, snakes its way over a prodigious 100 degrees of sky, as far south as the bright blue-white star, Achernar, some 57 degrees and 42 minutes south of the celestial equator and so hopeless beyond the ken of observers situated in the far north.

Seviss calls our attention to the remarkable multiple star system, Omicron (40) Eridani:

There are the two Omicrons, the upper one being o1 and the lower one o2. The latter is of an orange hue, and is remarkable for the speed which which it is flying through space. There are only one or two stars whose proper motion, as it is called, is more rapid than that of o2 in Eridanus. It changes its place nearly seven minutes of arc in a century.

pp 94-5


Author’s note: The large proper motion of o2 Eridani is a sure sign that it is located relatively near the solar system. Indeed astronomers esimate that is a mere 16 light years away.


Though both o1 and o2 Eridani are quite easily seen with the opera glass, the deeper secrets of the orange star o2 are quite beyond its powers. o2 actually has two faint companions of magnitudes 9.5 and 10.5, which were both uncovered by Sir William Herschel, observing from Bath, England, onthe evening of January 31 1783. These can be resolved by a small telescope using moderate magnifications (discussed by Serviss on page 95). the brighter magnitude 9.5 star is actually a white dwarf, discovered to be such in 1910, while the fainter 11th magnitude component is now known to be a red dwarf star that orbits the white dwarf every 250 years or so. What an eclectic communion of suns!

From northern Eridanus, Serviss next turns his attention to two remarkable asterims higher up in the sky in Taurus; the Hyades and the Pleiades. Easily visible to the naked eye, these clusters of starlight are a delight to study with the opera glass as Serviss enthusiastically informs us. Concerning the illustrious Hyades he writes;

Many of these stars can be seen, on a dark night, with an ordinary opera glass, but, to see them well, one should use as large a field glass as he can obtain……Below the tips of the horns and over Orion’s head, there are also rich clusters of stars, as if the Bull were flaunting shreds of sparkling raiment torn from some celestial victim of his fury. With an ordinary glass, however, the observer will not find this star-sprinkled region around the horns of Taurus as brilliant a spectacle as that presented by the Hydaes and the group of stars just above them in the Bull’s ear.

pp 96-7


Author’s note:

Map of the main stars of the Hyades asterism in Taurus. The horizontal axis is measured in hours and minutes of right ascension, and the vertical axis is measured in degrees of declination. Image credit: Wiki Commons.


This author has enjoyed many evenings observing the Hyades with his opera glass, or with modern binoculars. The rather restricted field (4.5 angular degrees) of view of the former will just accommodate the main part of the Hyades asterism, but it is still enough to soak up the beautiful ruddy tint of brilliant Aldebaran, and will show many of the brighter stars in the southern part of the characteristic ‘V’ shape, where the mind’s eye can indeed conceive of them as ” shreds of sparkling raiment,” as Serviss describes them. Indeed, close inspection with the opera glass reveals subtle colour differences between its constituent stars; orange, yellow and white.

His remarks concerning what can be seen in a larger ‘field glass’ are entirely valid however. For example, in a modern compact binocular, such as the author’s 8 x 42, the view of the Hyades is transformed immeasurably from that seen in the early 20th century opera glass, where many more stars are manifested owing to considerably greater magnification and a much wider field of view. In particular, the southern part of the asterism comes alive with dozens of faint stars like sparks falling from the fiery red coals of Aldebaran. Indeed, the view of the Hyades in a modern binocular offering a 7 or 8 degree true field is arguably one of the most fetching sights in all the heavens and one this author never tires of exploring!


On page 97, Serviss states that the Crab Nebula ( Messier 1) can be seen in a ” first rate field glass,” in the vicinity of Zeta Tauri.


Author’s note: Alas, I have been unable to detect M1 from my observing site using the opera glasses. Indeed, it is very challenging in the 8 x 42, but readily seen as a tiny nebulous speck in a 10 x 50 at the same site. The author did however detect the Crab from a darker setting in the southwest of Scotland using his 8 x 42 during a family vacation in October 2018. The fact that it is a difficult binocular object today probably reflects the darker conditions enjoyed by Serviss at the end of the 19th century.


On page 98, Serviss calls our attention to the subtle colour differences between Betelgeuse in Orion and Aldebaran in Taurus;

The redness of the light of Aldebaran is a very interesting phenomenon. Careful observation detects a decided difference between its color and that of Betelgeuse, or Alpha Orionis, which is also a red star……Aldebaran has a trace of rose-color in its light, while Betelgeuse is of a very deep orange.

pp 98


Author’s note: This is indeed the case. As stated previously, the opera glass is a capital instrument to discern colours in stars. This author can readily detect a rose tinting in Aldebaran while the hue of Betelgeuse does indeed present as a very deep orange. This probably reflects the spectral differences between the stars (K5 and M1 respectively), which in turn are attributed to different absorption characteristsics of the gaseous matter in their outer atmosphere.


The magnificent Pleiads.

On page 100, Serviss launches into a fascinating discussion of the Pleiades with beautiful prose:

In every age and in every country the Pleiades have been watched, admired and wondered at, for they are visible from every inhabited land of the globe. To many, they are popularly known as the Seven Sisters , although few persons can see more than six stars in the group with the unaided eye. It is a singular fact that many of the ancient writers declare that only six Pleiades can be seen, although they will also assert that they are seven in number. these seven were the fabled duaghters of Atlas, or the Atlantides, whose names were, Merope, Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Taygeta, Asterope and Maia.

pp 100

The mythology behind the Pleaides is not confined to the imaginings of the ancient Greeks though, for as Servss reminds us, the celestial fireflies feature richly in the lore of every nation under heaven. He writes:

They have impressed their mark, in one way or another, upon the habits, customs, traditions, language, and history of probably every nation. This is true of savage tribes as well as great empires.The Pleiades furnish one of the principal links that appear to connect the beginnings of human history with that wonderful prehistoric past, where, as through a gulf of mist, we seem to percieve faintly the glow of a golden age beyond.

pp 101


Author’s note: The Genesis creation account states that when God first fashioned humans in His image from the dust of the ground, he became a living, breathing soul  endowed with remarkable cognitive abilities(far in excess of any beast which, in itself, still presents an intractable problem for evolutionists). And sure enough, archaeologists have uncovered many cave paintings which affirm mankind’s long fascination with the stars, where the Pleiads are often depicted in highly accurate astronomical renderings. See this article for interest. Clearly these early people were no dummies!


Over the next few pages, Serviss delivers an excellent overview of some of the mytholgical lore associated with the Pleiades, particularly that of the ancient Egyptians but also mentioning the Hindus, Persians, Greeks, various south- and central-American cultures and even the Celtic Druids, which is of passing interest, but ultimately unrelated to observing. It is only on page 102 that he re-engages the interested reader with observational commentary, referring to a neat little diagram of the Pleiads on page 103;

With the most powerful field-glass you may be able to see all the stars represented in our picture of the Pleiades. With an ordinary opera-glass the fainter ones will not be visisble; yet even with such a glass the scene is a remarkable one. Not only all of the “Seven Sisters” but many other stars can be seen twinkling among them.

pp 102


Author’s note: The low-power opera glass does indeed show many more stars (perhaps 15?) than can be seen with the unaided eye but is simply not powerful enough to discern the fainter members drawn on his diagram presented on page 103. Nonetheless, the opera glass still presents a beautiful and engaging image of this celebrated star cluster that is substantially eclipsed by modern binoculars with their higher powers and superior light throughput.


Serviss encourages his readers to learn the name and position of the main stars in the Pleaides before discussing some of the more interesting astronomical science associated with the asterism, particularly evidence associated with their common origin, which includes a common proper motion through interstellar space (see page 103). He even mentions a rather bizarre assessment made by the German astronomer, Johann von Mädler (1794-1874), who first put forth the idea that all the stars of the Pleiades revolved around Alycone, but which was later shown to be untenable. Immediately following this, Serviss embarks on a fascinating discussion of the existence of nebulosity around some of the stars in the Pleiades star cluster:

Still another curious fact about the Pleiades is the existence of some rather mysterious nebulous masses in the cluster. In 1859 Temple discovered an extensive nebula, of a broad oval form, with the star Merope immersed in one end of it. Subsequent observations showed that this strange phenomenon was variable. Sometimes it could not be seen; at other times it was very plain and large. In Jeaurat’s chart of the Pleiades, made in 1779, a vast nebulous mass is represented near the stars Atlas and Pleione. This has since been identified by Goldschmidt as part of a huge, ill-defined nebula, which he thought he could perceive enveloping the whole group of the Pleiades. many observers however, could never see nebulous masses, and were inclined to doubt their actual existence. Within the past few years astronomical photography, having made astonishing progress, has thrown light upon the mysterious subject. The sensitized plate of the camera, when applied at the focus of a properly constructed telescope, has proved more effective than the human retina, and has, so to speak, enabled us to see beyond the reach of human vision by means of the pictures it makes of objects which escape the eye. In November 1885, Paul and Prosper Henry, turned their great photographic telescope upon the Pleiades, and with it discovered a nebula apparently attached to the star Maia. The most powerful telescopes in the world had never revealed this to the eye.

pp 104-105.


Author’s note: The reflection nebula around Merope was uncovered by Wilhelm Temple using a modest 4 inch achromatic refractor. Historical documents do indeed show that this nebulosity was notoriously difficult  to discern visually, especially with large, observatory-class instrumets. One record shows that the celebrated double star observer, S.W. Burnham, failed to see any nebulosity around Merope using a much larger refractor than anything Temple had access to and so expressed doubt of its existence. It was spotted by E.E Barnard though. Such stories are not unique to the Merope Nebula, as similar anecdotes have been reported concerning the Rosette Nebula in Monoceros, which is much better seen in a small, rich-field telescope than a large one with a restricted field of view.

The author is uncertain as to the precise photographic telescope used by the brothers Henry referenced by Serviss above, but it was probably a fore-runner to their 33cm and larger 62cm astrographs used by astronomers at Paris and Meudon Observatory, respectively, in the 1890s. For more information please see chapter 26 on the Great Meudon Refractor in the author’s book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy (Springer Nature 2018).


The glory of Orion. Note Betelgeuse(red) at top left and Rigel(white) at bottom right. Image credit: Wiki Commons.

On page 106, Serviss begins to create many charming word pictures of the ruling constellation of winter; Orion. He writes;

To the naked eye, to the opera glass, and to the telescope, Orion is alike a mine of wonders. This great constellation embraces almost every variety of interesting phenomena that the heavens contain. Here we have the grandest of the nebulae, some of the largest and beatifully colored stars, star-streamers, star-clusters, nebulous stars, variable stars.I have already mentioned the positions of the principal stars in the imaginary figure of the great hunter….. Betelgeuse, it may be remarked is slightly variable. Sometimes it appears brighter than Rigel, and sometimes less brilliant. It is interesting to note that, according to Secchi’s division of the stars into types, based upon their spectra, Betelegeuse falls into the third order, which seems to represent a type of suns in which the process of cooling , and the formation of an absorptive evelope or shell, have gone on so far that we may reagrd them as approaching the point of extinction.

pp 109


Author’s note: Even at the end of the 19th century, it is clear that astronomers had already envisaged an evolutionary sequence of events that causes stars to change throughout their lives. Secchi’s primitive stellar classification sheme gave way to the more elaborate Hertzsprung-Russell scheme, where a robust physical theory underpinned this change, greatly aided by the genius of Sir Arthur Eddington, who’s seminal work established the physics of stellar interiors and who clearly demsonstrated how they change as a function of time. Betelgeuse is indeed at the end of its life and is fated to explode in a cataclysmic supernova event. It might have already happened, for we would have no knowledge of the event for 500 years, which is the time taken for its light to reach us. Mighty Betelgeuse is a mammaoth star, whose diameter exceeds that of the orbit of Mars.


Serviss continues his discussion on the bright luminaries of Orion by contrasting fiery red Betelegeuse with brilliant white Rigel;

In Rigel we see a sun blazing with the fires of youth, splendid in the first glow of its solar energies, and holding the promise of the future yet before it. Rigel belongs to a new generation of the universe; Betelgeuse to the universe that is passing.

pp 110


Author’s note: In Serviss’ day, astronomers believed stars started out their lives shining in white or blue-white hues, but as they aged they cooled off into yellow and finally red suns. This is the reason why some old-school astronomers still refer to the whiter stellar varieties as ‘early’ and their ruddier counterparts to be ‘late.’  In reality though, stars vary greatly in their longevity. Small stars, like the exceeding abundant red dwarves, which comprise perhaps 80 per cent of all suns in the Creation, can maintain a stable existence for trillions of years. The largest, in contrast, are fated to self destruct in just millions.

The lifetime of a star is dictated by its mass and scales as (Mo/M)^2.5, where M is the mass of the star and Mo is the mass of the Sun. It follows that while Betelgeuse, with an estimated mass of ~ 12Mo will have a lifetime of (1/12)^2.5 or just 0.2 per cent of the Sun’s lifetime (~10 Gyr). This fits well with its estimated age of ~ 10Myr.


Turn your glass upon the three stars forming the Belt. You will not be likely to undertake to count all the twinkling lights that you will see, especially as many of them appear and disappear as you can turn your attention to different parts of the field.

pp 110


Author’s note: The ~4.5 degree field of view of the opera glass easily fits the three belt stars in the same portal and is a joy to behold on a dark, winter night. The glass reveals that all three stars appear white, reflecting perhaps their common origin from a larger, so-called OB Association. From left to right these stars are given majestic names; Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Arranged as a slanting line, they naturally create the illusion of being at the same distance but this is, once again, a pleasant fiction; Mintaka is both fainter and nearer than the other two belt stars, which are situated about three times further away.

The belt stars actually form part a much grander arrangement of suns known collectively as Collinder 70. Held steadily, the opera glass will reveal a swarm of fainter stars, many of which are of the 6th and 7th degree of glory, in and around the three belt stars. When observed with a modern 10 x 50 binocular, Collinder 70 is a breathtaking sight! The reader is best advised to wait until the constellation culminates over the southern horizon to make the most at teasing the fainter members of Collinder 70 out of the murk, as they are more easily picked off with increasing altitude.


Serviss continues his  description of the winter sky with an in-depth look at Sirius, the brightest star in all the heavens:

Sirius, in fact, stands in a class by itself as the brightest star in the sky. Its light is white, with a shade of green, which requires close watching to be detected. When it is near the horizon, or when the atmopshere is very unsteady , Sirius flashes primatic colors like a great diamond. The question has been much discussed , as to whether Sirius was formerly a red starIt is described as red by several ancient authors, but it seems to be pretty well established that these descriptions are most of them due to a blunder made by Cicero in his translation of the astronomical poem of Aratus. It is not impossible, though it is highly improbable, that Sirius has chnaged color.

pp 111


Sirius does indeed corruscate wildly in the dense air near the horizon at my far northerly latitude. The colours of Sirius seen by the naked eye and through the opera glass reveal the complex interplay between brilliant star light and atmospheric refraction. The very idea that Sirius was once a red star seems altogether unlikely to me and Serviss’ pointing to Cicero’s “blunder”, as it were, seems entirely reasonable as the explanation as to why this myth has been perpetuated throughout the centuries.

Serviss invites the reader to look at Sirius with the opera glass and its interesting hinterland. Indeed, by placing Sirius toward the top of the field, my opera glass picks up the faint glow of Messier 41 – discussed by Serviss on page 112 – at the bottom of the field of view. Serviss states that this open cluster is best seen with ” powerful opera glasses or a field glass.”


Author’s note: Although many observers more conveniently located further south rightly describe M41 to be a rather spectacular sight in larger binoculars or a small, rich field telescope, it’s very low altitude at 56 degrees north latitude detracts significantly from its visual punch.


Serviss then discusses the discovery of the elusive companion to Sirius, how it was predicted by Friedrich W. Bessel before finally being unveiled in the winter of 1862 when it was discovered through a large achromatic refractor fashioned by Alvan Clark.  In the closing pages of his treatise on the “Winter Stars,” Serviss discusses some low lying objects that can be reasonably seen with a field glass from mid-northern latitudes eg. M46 in Puppis, but for some reason, fails to bring our attention to Messier 50, easily picked up in my lowly opera glass as a foggy 8th magnitude patch about half the size of the full Moon, about one third of the way from Sirius towards Procyon, but does rightly acknowledge an interesting field of stars (8, 13 and 17 Monocerotis), near its northern border. He ends the chapter with a clarion call for us to become observers of the sky:

Do not be afraid to become a stargazer. The human mind can find no higher exercise. He who studies the stars will discover-

“And endless fountain of immortal drink

Pouring unto us from heaven’s brink.”

pp 117.

That’s regal advice for anyone in any time!


Chapter 1: The Stars of Spring

Covering pages 7 through 29

Having selected your glass, the next thing is to find the stars. Of course, one could sweep over the heavens at random on a starry night and see many interesting things, but he would soon tire of such aimless occupation. The observer must know what he is looking at in order to derive any real pleasure or satisfaction from the sight.

pp 7

Serviss begins his overview of the spring sky with a rather bold assertion; haphazard scanning of the heavens with an opera glass is something observers will soon tire of. I respectfully disagree with Serviss in this matter, as I rather enjoy sweeping up starfields, moving randomly one way, and then another, ‘discovering’ new and interesting configurations of stars, unnoticed asterisms as it were, that I may happen to chance upon. What is more, I have come to view all of my binoculars as providing different sized portals on the night sky, with each one opening a unique window on the darkness of space.

When it comes to stargazing, getting lost can be an exciting prospect!

The next few pages of the book cover the basics of how the sky works in beautiful prose, as well as how to get started by learning some of the key signposts that point the way to interesting parts of the spring sky. Serviss urges his readers to take the time to learn how to recognise the main constellations of the vernal heavens:

In the same way you will be able to find the constellations Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, and Perseus. Don’t expect to accomplish all in an hour. You may have to devote two or three evenings to such observation, and make many trips indoors to consult the map (see page 8), before you have mastered the subject; but when you have done it you will feel amply repaid for your exertions, and you will have made yourself silent friends in the heavens that will beam kindly upon you, like old neighbors, on whatever side of the world you may wander.

pp 10

On page 11, Serviss offers some good advice regarding the attainment of a steady, comfortable view, recommending for example, a convenient arm rest and a “lazy back chair.” He then mentions something quite notable:

Remember that no two persons’ eyes are alike, and that even the eyes of the same observer occasionally require a change. In looking for a difficult object, I have sometimes suddenly brought the sought-for phenomenon into view by a slight turn of the focusing screw.

pp 11


Author’s note: I can certainly affirm what Serviss is saying here. The eye can vary somewhat in its degree of accommodation of an image and it has become his custom to keep his hand on the focusing wheel while viewing an object, tweaking it ever so slightly to get the optimal focus.Small chnages can indeed yield dividends, especially on fainter open clusters and nebulae. Of course, changes in altitude also require routine re-focusing.



To be continued…….


De Fideli.

Exploring some Early Spring Doubles with a 130mm f/5 Newtonian Reflector.

Plotina; sampling a rich variety of double stars in early March skies.


Early March evenings provide some great opportunities to observe double stars of various levels of difficulty. This work is based on a single night’s observations, which took place on the late evening of March 4 and shortly after midnight on March 5 2019.

The instrument used was a 130mm f/5 Newtonian reflector. The cork-lined optical tube assembly provides excellent thermal stability and when it is perfectly collimated and acclimated to the night time air, it produces beautiful images of double stars under good seeing conditions.

The reader can also enjoy these doubles stars with other types of telescopes. For the most difficult systems I would recommend at least a 120mm refractor, a C5 or C6 Schmidt Cassegrain, a 6″ Classical Cassegrain  or a 127mm Maksutov Cassegrain.

The evening on which the observations were made proved very good, with a brisk southwesterly wind and good steady seeing conditions (Antoniadi II). As I explained in a few previous blogs, I point the 130mm Newtonian straight into the wind, where it acts as a natural boundary layer scrubber. No fan was used.

I started with Theta Aurigae, now well past meridian passage but still quite high in the western sky. The system always provides a good challenge for the medium aperture backyard ‘scope. I used a power of 260x (Parks Gold 7.5mm coupled to a Meade 3x Barlow) to obtain a wonderful view of the faint companion.The challenge here is the large brightness difference between the pair (magnitudes 2.6 & 7.2) That said, the 130mm reflector will always resolve this tough system in good seeing conditions.

Our next target presents an altogther different type of challenge to the double star observer. Wasat (Delta Geminorum) is a creamy white star shining with a magnitude of +3.5 but it has a much fainter companion; an orange dwarf star shining feebly at magnitude +8.2. The challege here is to pick it off from the primary as it is very close in. Good transparency is a necessity for glimpsing it. I used a power of 118x (Meade 5.5mm Series 5000 UWA) to bag it. These form a true binary system with a period of about 1000 years.

Iota Cassiopeiae: a much easier system to resolve, and contrary to erroneous literature claiming otherwise (a nefarious meme promulgated by refractor nuts in paticular), presents little in the way of a serious challenge. This is a lovely triple system, with all three components observed at 260X (Parks Gold 7.5mm coupled to 3x achromatic Meade Barlow).

Our next port of call is Alula Australis (Xi UMa) in Ursa Major. Being very high in the sky at this time of year, it is ripe for exploration with a decent backyard ‘scope. The near equal magnitude creamy white components shine with magnitudes +4.3 and +4.8 are are rapidly widening, being accessible to the smallest telescopes after 2020. As a keen student of this system  for over a decade, I have watched it slowly widening from season to season and now is a great time to see this wondrous apparition of nature. The changing aspect of the pair is easily explained by virtue of its short orbital period; just 60 years. Easily resolved in the 130mm f/5 at 260x, I enjoyed an even better view at 354x (Meade 5.5mm UWA coupled to a Meade 3x Barlow).

Our next target is right next door; look through your finder and move the telescope to the other bright star in the field of view. I speak of course of Alula Borealis. The 130mm f/5 presents the system beautifully; an orange primary(magnitude +3.5) and just 7.4″ away, the exceedingly faint companion shining with a magnitude of +10.1. Well seen at 118x and 135x (Meade UWA 5.5mm & 4.8mm T1 Nagler, respectively) roughly due west of the primary, observing the tiny, faint spark is a sight for sore eyes!

Back into Gemini now for our next target, which will present a much greater challenge:Propus (Eta Geminorum).The primary is a red giant star, which fluctuates in magnitude, varying in glory from + 3.1 and + 3.9 over a period of about eight months. The challenge is to see the very close-in companion, which shines much more feebly at magnitude +6.2, but it’s located just 1.6″ away, making this an exceedingly difficult system, requiring great patience and perseverance to crack. That said, I  was able to successfully resolve the companion for the third time this season, on the evening of March 4, using a power of 354x (Meade UWA 5.5mm coupled to a 3x Meade Barlow) in my 130mm f/5 roughly northwest of the primary. If you don’t bag it on a good night, don’t fret, the unstable, geriatric primary probably plays a role in making it difficult to see. But repeated observations over a period of a few weeks should yield success! The stars orbit their barycentre every five centuries.

My final offering is also very challenging; much more so than many observing guide books would have you believe. I speak of Iota Leonis, a creamy white star shining at magnitude +4.1. The challenge is to resolve the secondary; shining more feebly at magnitude + 6.7. Separated by just 2.1″, I usually wait until the fairly low lying system in my far northern skies, reaches the meridian, which it did at about 00:40UT on March 5 2019. I used a power of 354x(Meade 5.5mm UWA and 3x Barlow) to resolve the tricky pair. The secondary lies roughly due east of the primary and orbits its brighter luminary every 186 years. My guide book suggests a 76mm telescope and high power is about the minimum necessary. I think this is a pipe dream though. What do you think?

Well, that’s your lot folks. I hope these systems will give readers a good challenge on cool March evenings and keep you busy and active.

Happy Hunting!


Neil English recounts the history of many celebrated double star observers over four centuries of time, using both refractors and reflectors, in his latest work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.


De Fideli.

Product Review: The Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 Binocular.

Grandes Binoculares.

The achromatic telescope has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the hands of skilled observers. In my most recent book, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, I have documented and shared with you the amazing achievements of the classical refractor over three centuries of time. But it would be quite inaccurate to claim that it has been really superceded by anything else in the modern age. This is especially true in the case of binocular manufacture, where sales of achromatic instruments vastly outsell models which possess modern ED glass. And there’s a good reason for this: ED is an expedient luxury that impacts little to the binocular view, what with their low magnifications and wide fields. For every ED model offered, there are a great deal more models made with traditional crown & flint.

Consumers vote with their wallets.

We still live in the achromatic age.

Having enjoyed and appreciated the achromatic refractor for decades, I have come to the conclusion that it is in the binocular that achromatic optics has reached its zenith. Properly made, achromatic optics provide wonderful, sharp and contrasty images of the eartly and heavenly creation. This conclusion has been reached by extensive field experience of a variety of achromatic binoculars that show vanishingly small amounts of secondary spectrum and which are far more alike than different to models with ED glass, but at a fraction of their cost. These sentiments are also reflected in the models still being marketed by some big names in the large binocular world, including Celestron and Oberwerk. What these manufacturers offer is great performance at prices that won’t leave you out in the cold.

For certain kinds of visual astronomy, large binoculars simply can’t be beaten. The ability to use two eyes rather than one greatly influences the quality of the views, where it impacts depth of field perception, faint object detection and significant improvements in perceived contrast. Without a shadow of doubt, large binoculars are the single most powerful way to enjoy larger deep sky objects, where telescopes simply cannot offer the same ‘zoomed out views.’ That said, it’s very much a Goldilocks scenario; increase the magnification too much and you lose those gorgeous panoramic sights, but when the power is too low, finer and fainter details remain elusive. It was with this realisation that I took a punt on a curious large achromatic binocular made by Pentax; enter the PCF WP II 20 x 60.

That Pentax were prepared to put their name on the PCF WP II 20 x 60 is a lesson in objectivity. Why would such a prestigious manufacturer of high-end cameras and sports optics decide on a well-appointed, large achromatic binocular? The answer is that when well made, even a 20x model would deliver up wonderful, tack sharp views of the landscape by day and breathtaking celestial vistas by night. And this has been achieved at a price point that suits the budgets of discriminating amateur astronomers who just appreciate well designed classical optics; true observers rather than casual sightseers; folk who want real substance rather than the latest ‘gee whiz’ gimmicks.

                                                     A Full Featured Binocular

Though the instrument can be acquired at a good, price new (£219 UK for the latest SP model), I was lucky enough to acquire this binocular in excellent, used condition for a little over half the retail price. The former owner had taken very good care of it, added a sturdy carrying strap and dispensed with the flimsy carrying case, replacing it with a sturdy foam-lined aluminium case.

The Pentax 20 x 60 snug in its foam-lined aluminium case. Note the tripod adapter attached to the instrument.

The porro prism binocular weighs just 1.4 kilos (~3 pounds), surprisingly light for an instrument of these specifications and is water and splash proof. This may account for the WP(water proof?) in their name. The interior is purged with dry nitrogen gas to prevent internal fogging and to minimise corrosion.The body, which is constructed of a lightweight magnesium alloy, is covered with a protective rubberised substrate that is easy to grip and is tough and durable in all weathers.

The petax 10 x 60 is deisgned for rough weather use.

The optics are fully multi-coated to maximise light transmission to the eye and reducing contrast-robbing internal reflections to a minimum.

The beautifully applied multicoatings on the large 60mm objective lenses.

Hard coatings on the ocular lenses maximise their durability.

The centre focusing wheel is remarkable in two respects. Firstly, it is quite tight in comparison to other binoculars I’ve used. This was intentionally done by the manufacturer, as you’re not likely to use this instrument watching fast moving birds or some such, necessitating the rapid change of focus position. This increased tension does however allow for very precise focusing to be achieved. Secondly, there is a facility on the focuser to lock it in place. Simply push the focusing wheel forward and it is locked in; a nice design feature that can be advantageous. For example, if you end a session with the binocular focused on the stars at infinity, locking the focuser in place ensures that you can re-engage with the sky whenever you’re next out, with minimal (if any) re-focusing necessary.

The well designed focuser ensures very accurate focusing of the instrument and can be locked in place simply by pushing the focussing wheel forward, as indicated.

The strong bridge connecting both barrels of the binocular is reassuringly stiff, allowing one to easily obtain the correct inter-pupillary distance (IPD) and only requires occasional adjustment in field use.The dioptre setting is found under the right-hand eyecup allowing independent focusing of both barrels. It has just the right amount of tension and stays in place without any fuss.

The dioptre setting on the binocular lies directly under the right eye cup.

I really like the twist up eyecups on the Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60. Like my smaller roof prism binoculars, they click into place and are quite secure. Eye glass wearers just need to hold the eyecups down, while those who don’t (yours truly included) can extend them upwards for very comfortable, full-field viewing. The texture of the cup is hard rubber which is a far cry from the cheap fold up/down eyecups seen on many other large binoculars in this price range. Indeed it is my experience that the latter can fragment in prolonged field use, necessitating their replacement from time to time. These sit very comfortably against the eyes and never need to be adjusted. Eye relief is exceptional; a verry comfortable 21mm.

High quality hard rubber eye cups twist up and lock in place for non eye glass wearers. Those who wear eye glasses will likely keep them fully down while in use.

                                                    Mounting Options

It is not the weight per se that forces one to mount this binocular. As stated above, they are quite light for their optical specification. Rather, it is the 20x magnification that limits their hand-held use. That said, I can hold them reasonably steady by extending my hands a little further forward on the barrels than with my smaller binoculars and this strategy can work quite well for short, ‘quick peek’ sessions. Incidentally, I discovered thumb indentations on the belly of the instrument presumably designed to assist hand holding! Golly gosh!

Ain’t that sweet: indentations to fit the hand on these big binos!

Still, whatever jitter you have, it will be magnified 20 times while looking through it. Such high powered binos definitely require some kind of stablising action and, in this capacity, one can either elect to use them tripod-mounted or by using a monopod.

The Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 binocular can be easily mated to a light weight tripod with an appropritae adapter.

A word of caution; avoid using those cheap plastic tripod adapters that often attend bargain basement large binos such as the ubiquitous 15 x 70. These introduce an annoying level of flexure that will almost certainly detract from enjoying the instrument in the field. It is strongly advisable to invest that little bit more in a good quality, all-metal unit sold by Opticron and other companies. Indeed, I found the same adapter that fits my 10 x 50 roof prism  binocular also work swimmingly well with this larger instrument.

Tripods have their pros and cons though. Although they offer the maximum level of stability and have built in slow-motion controls on both axes, they are quite uncomfortable to use when aimed high in the sky. I found it quite hard to find a suitably comfortable positioning of my eyes when used in the seated position. That said, a trpod was useful in checking collimation of the barrels and certain daylight activities, but in the end the most suitable way I’ve found to use this instrument is by mounting it on a simple monopod.

Using a high quality(solid aluminium) ball & socket adapter, mounting the 20 x 60 on a monopod is quick and easy to execute.

Travelling light; the author’s preferred mode of mounting the Pentax 20 x 6o binocular using a light but strong extendable monopod and ball and socket head.

Simplicity itself; the 20 x 60 mounted on a lightweight but sturdy monopod.

Using the monopod, I have been able to get very stable views during daylight and extended periods of night use. For quick looks, I usually stand and adjust the angle of either the monopod itself or the ball & socket head. For the most stable viewing sessions however, I relax in a recliner and, securing the monopod base between my feet, have attained nearly jitter-free viewing. I have learned to place some of the weight of the binocular on my face, which increases the overall stability to a significant degree.

Yours truly suitably attired, demonstrating the use of the monopod.


Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 Optics

As the size of binoculars increase, it makes a lot of sense to decide on a porro prism design, rather than its roof prism counterpart. Porros are less expensive and just easier to make well and also offer slightly more light throughput than their roof prism counterparts. The optics of the Pentax PCF WP II 20 x 60 are notable. All lenses are fully multi-coated with a protective overcoat. The Bak-4 prisms are also multi-coated. The oculars are constructed from aspherical lenses which offer several advantages over conventional lens systems, espcially in the suppression of spherical aberration and a number of off-axis aberrations that plague conventional porro binos. In addition, fewer elements are needed with ashperical designs, significantly reducing weight.  Rather than rambling on with this, it’s best to hear it from an established optics firm. Here is a link to more information on aspherical lenses.

Collimation test

Collimation of binoculars is important especially on these high power units. One quick way to test for collimation is to mount the binocular on a tripod and select a target at least a kilometre away. I elected to use the snow capped Fintry Hills a couple of miles distant.  With the correct IPD selected for my eyes, I look through the binocular and slowly pull my eyes away until the exit pupils start to become separated and I can only see the top of the field. If there is miscollimation, one image will be raised slightly higher than the other. To my relief both images remained perfectly level. Testing for sideways collimation involves aiming at a distant target and testing to see if images at the edge of the field are precisely aligned on both sides. In doing this, I detected a very slight misplacement but it was so small that I wasn’t worried. The images merge very easily and you don’t encounter eye strain even after prolonged use.

Misaligned prisms can also be revealed by examining the shape and size of the exit pupil when the binocular is pointed at a source of light. As you can see below, both exit pupils are round and of the same size indicating that all was well.

Two round exit pupils of the same size indicate good alignment of the prisms with no picking off evident.

Daytime tests:

The binocular has a 3mm exit pupil. This ensures the best part of your eye is imaging the field. And oh what a field! When precisely focused images of daytime targets are bright and tack sharp across nearly the entre field (read 95%), indicating that that aspherical optics were working well. Contrast is excellent with very effective baffling of stray light. On axis, very little chromatic aberration could be detected but I could see that off axis some lateral colour was evident. That said, it was very slight and totally acceptable to my eye. In comparison to a side by side test made with my ShortTube 80 f/5 achromatic telescope charged with a power of 16x (5mm exit pupil) in a wider 3.75 degree field showed much higher levels of lateral colour.

Spying on a corbie perched on a TV aerial against a bright sky background about 40 yards in the distance showed very slight secondary spectrum around the crow’s jet black plumage. I deemed the result quite excellent and non-intrusive for an achromatic binocular of these specifications.

Close focus was estimated to be about 8.5 metres.


A Curious Aside: Yep, as soon as an issue is raised here it soon pops up online lol. Check out the consensus in this thread regarding ED elements in binoculars.

Nightime tets:

For nightime testing, I mounted the 20 x 60 on a simple monopod, as described previously. This is a very quick and effective way to get going with this large binocular. Some users of the instrument complained about the small field of view offered by the Pentax PCF, what with its 2.2 degree true field. Others commented on the sensitivity of the instrument to eye placement, but truth be told, I found neither of these things to be in the least bit distracting. You see, I’m used to very small fields working with close double stars at very high magnifications and with fields that are far smaller than what is offered by this big gun. Right off the bat, I was enjoying very comfortable, stable images. A 2.2 degree field is small as 60mm binoculars go, but it is plenty good enough to frame larger deep sky objects. To my mind, it simply boils down to training.

My first light target was the Pleiades cluster in Taurus. Getting myself comfortably positioned on my recliner and adjusting the monopod, I was absolutely blown away by the sight of this magnificent open cluster in the 20 x 60! More like an astrophoto more than anything else, the entire cluster was beautifully framed, crammed full of gorgeous blue-white starlight and razor sharp from edge to edge. The sky hinterland was jet black with none of the flaring of stellar images that I had experienced in my brief rendevous with budget 15 x 70 models.  It is immediately apparent that the field is very flat from edge to edge, with no distortions that I could register. It just exuded quality! And although I own a number of good telescopes that can collect far more light than this 20 x 60 instrument, they could not beat it in terms of delivering such a magisterial image. Focusing the binocular was particularly satisfying; very small motions can make the difference between seeing the faintest stars and not seeing them at all.

Turning next to the Sword Handle in Orion, which is also perfectly framed in the 2.2 degree field,  I was deeply impressed at the wonderful contrast and colour rendering of the bright O/B stars in the field; tiny little pinpoints of light bathing my retinas. I could easily make out the greenish hue of the great Nebula in Orion (M42) and a steady hand revealed at least two of the tiny quartet of stars comprising the famous Trapezium (Theta Orionis complex).

Though the field of view is not large enough to frame the three bright Orion belt stars, the 20 x 60 pulls out many more faint stars in Collinder 70 that are quite beyond the reach of my regular astro binocular; my trusty 10 x 50. Suddenly, this peterrnaturally lovely open cluster has become a whole lot more crowded!

In the wee small hours of freezing January nights, I would watch the sky, waiting for the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer to approach the meridian. Having experienced the Pleiades, I was very much looking forward to seeing this large and sprawling open cluster in the 20 x 60. And again, it did not disappoint; the view was enthralling! The entire field was filled with pinpoint stars against a jet black sky. Using two eyes greatly enhances the view and there is a lot to be said for seeing these wonders of God’s creation in their correct orientation, as if they were made for such instruments.

The glories of the Double Cluster in Perseus were a joy to behold in this high power binocular; great mounds of starlight of varying hues with curious fans and spirals of distant suns meandering their way from their crowded centres. Compared with a 10 x 50, the view was simply in a different league!

I didn’t notice much in the way of chromatic aberration in the images, save for a brief spell with the Dog Star, Sirius. It’s brilliant light is dazzling in the 20 x 60, corruscating with various colours from moment to moment. In my opinion, secondary spectrum is a complete non-issue with this instrument for astronomical use; just set it up and go stargazing!

Although smaller deep sky objects are best examined in telescopes with more light gathering power and their ability to take higher magnifications, I nonetheless enjoyed some very pleasing views of the Auriga trio of Messier open clusters; M36, M38 and especially the sumptuously rich M37, which appears satisfyingly large, well defined and glistening with the light of many faint suns. M35 was also big and prominent in this large binocular with dozens of its constituent stars being easily made out.

This is a wonderful instrument for framing and observing the Engagement Ring: a circular arrangement of faint stars encrusted with the creamy bright Polaris as the principal gemstone. Smaller, more conventional binoculars really don’t show this structure half as well, owing to their lower power, wider fields and reduced light grasp.

With such a large and powerful binocular, the colours of stars really stand out; marmalade orange Propus, sanguine red Mu Cephei, the soft yellow pastels of Capella and the Orion belt stars, white as the driven snow. This instrument would also make a dedicated variable star observer very happy, what with its impressive light gathering power (reaching down to perhaps + 11 magnitude from a dark site with good transparency) in a very well corrected, wide field. The 20 x 60 might not be the first instrument that comes to mind for a budding comet hunter, but I am reminded of the advice of the great 19th century observer, William F. Denning, who recommended an instrument with a field of view of between 1 and 1.5 degrees for such work. And in more modern times, the distinguished comet discoverer, David H. Levy, advises that the comet-seeking instrument deliver a field of just 0.75 angular degrees! Seen in this light, the suggestion doesn’t seem quite so far fetched.

The telescope provides wonderful views of some prominent binocular doubles; Mizar & Alcor, o1 Cygni, Albireo, Mintaka and Cor Caroli, to name but a few.

Structure within Structures

The Pentax PCF 20 x 60 is a formidable instrument for delineating structures within larger asterisms. Just have a look at the stars around fiery red Aldebaran with this bazuka! Sure, you can’t see the entire Hyades but with its pinpoint stars, wonderful contrast and generous ‘space penetrating power’, as Sir William Herschel of old liked to say,  it allows you to capture painfully beautiful starfields, rich in light and colour against a velvet black sky.  It’s even more amazing when pointed at Alpha Persei; the field is littered with lovely stellar jewels sparkling through the cold dark of interstellar space. This will be a great instrument to begin a study of stellar hinterlands around the brightest stars in general, something I thought about in the past but never pursued because of other diversions. I think it’s tailor made for such projects!

Ready to go when you are: the Pentax PCF 20 x 60 can be used at a moment’s notice between heavy showers when some clear spells manifest.

Starting in Gemini and running the binocular haphazardly across the sky through Auriga, northern Orion, Taurus, Perseus and ending in the gloriously rich Cassiopeia, the binocular shows me many new asterisms which I had not witnessed before, a consequence of its unique field of view, magnification and image orientation. Almost every field stumbled upon brings new bounties, delicate arrangements of stars unnoticed in smaller binoculars; vast shoals of starlight in the open ocean of space.

Moon Watching:

In the early days of February 2019, I got several opportunities to observe the waxing crescent Moon through the monopod-mounted Pentax PCF 20 x 60 binocular. The views were amazing; razor sharp, beautiful contrast, most excellent suppression of internal reflections that can easily plague lesser binoculars. Indeed, I’ve devised this simple but highly discriminating test as a way to quickly establish whether a binocular is fit for general astronomy use. If the unit shows flare and/or internal reflections when pointed at the Moon, it’s leaking light.

The image scale of the Moon seemed larger than I expected it to be in going from a standard 10x binocular to this 20x unit. It just seemed like I was getting a higher power than the 20x marked on the Pentax binocular tube. This is no doubt an illusion, a consequence I suppose of the Moon’s taking up a larger fraction of the area of the field than seen in my trusty 10 x 50 binocular.

The earthshine from the dark side of the Moon was very prominent and as the crescent continued to grow, the binocular revealed more and more details of the lunar regolith. The image scale is great for seeing high resolution details of the battered southern Highlands. On the evening of February 10, I enjoyed a wonderful view of the three large craters; Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina on the eastern shore of Mare Nectaris. Up north, Atlas and Hercules could be clearly made out with a steady hand. The limb displayed a sliver of colour; sometimes green, sometimes yellow, depending on where my eyes were postioned.I judged the chromatic aberration on this tough target to be minimal and completely non-intrusive to a seasoned telescopic observer. Contrast between the bright lava fields and darker maria was very well presented, producing an extremely immersive, aesthetically pleasing view.  This will be a great binocular to observe the early waxing Moon during March and April, when earthshine is at its most prominent and I look forward to fielding the instrument for this purpose. Sure, the binocular cannot substitute for the telescope proper, but it certainly complements those high-power, high-resolution views. The big binocular has a charm all of its own and should really be enjoyed on its own terms.

Concluding Remarks:

A quality, large binocular at a great price!

As you can probably discern from the above write up, I took to this instrument like a proverbial duck to water!

The Pentax PCF 20 x 60 WP II  is an impressive performing, large binocular, with a rugged but durable housing. It is water and splash proof, making it suitable for routine and/or prolonged work by day or by night. Its high magnification requires a stable mounting system to get the best out of the instrument.The ability to lock the focus in place is a useful mechanical feature that will be greatly appreciated by all those who use it in the field.

The Pentax 20 x 60 has very high quality optics, including properly collimated porro prisms and quality multi-layer coatings that efficiently transmit light to the eye. All lenses are also fully multicoated. The aspherical optics deliver a very highly corrected field, from edge to edge. Chromatic aberration is very well controlled and is not intrusive in normal use. Contrast-robbing internal reflections are also very well suppressed in this instrument. The binocular is very easy to use and has comfortable eye relief(21mm with the twist-up eyecups), allowing hassle-free viewing for both non eye-glass wearers and those that like to observe with their glasses on.

Less experienced observers have complained that the binocular has too small a field, but I am reminded of the superbly designed (but very expensive!) Takahashi Astronomer 22 x 60 binocular which sported a field of view of just 2.1 angular degrees, so slightly smaller than that offered up by the Pentax 20 x 60! In truth, a 2.2 degree true field is perfectly adequate to frame the vast majority of celestial objects.

The binocular is ideally suited to framing showpiece deep sky objects for careful study, such as the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, the Beehive Cluster and other large Messier objects, but is also well appointed for use in comet hunting/observing and variable star work. Its high magnification and excellent contrast produces magnificent views of the Moon that will impress anyone who uses it.

The Pentax PCF 20 x 60 WP II can also be employed as a two-eyed spotting ‘scope in long-distance daylight viewing/surveillance, e.g. observing a bird’s nest at a comfortable distance or in a variety of maritime applications.

Its very reasonable retail price makes this a most attractive instrument for budget conscious amateurs who do not want to compromise on optical performance.

Highly recommended!

Post Scriptum: Stephen Tonkin, an accomplished binocular astronomer and author has written another review of this binocular (the newer SP incarnation). It can be viewed here.

And then another one pops up; coincidence?  lol.

Neil English is the author of several books on amateur astronomy. His latest work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, is now availlable in hardback and electronic formats.


De Fideli.

8 Spectacular Binocular Sights for Winter Nights.

Out and about with my 8 x 42 binocular.


The winter sky is jam packed full of beautiful sights that can be appreciated with ordinary binoculars. Many of the brightest stars in the sky sparkle through the darkness on winter evenings, and some of the best open clusters and nebulae make their presence felt to even a casual observer even with the most basic of optical aids. In this blog, we shall explore 8 spectacular sights that can be enjoyed with hand-held instruments or using simple, stabilising arrangements such as a monopod.

Solid as a rock; the 10 x50 binocular on a monopod.

All of the targets in this article were observed with modest 8 x 42 or 10 x 50 roof prism binoculars, serving up fields of 8.2 and 5.9 angular degrees, respectively; plenty wide enough to see all of the targets discussed.  What follows is a series of concise notes on what can be expected from a dark rural site with these instruments, but those who live in large towns and suburban areas can also enjoy many of the same sights. So what are you waiting for? Fetch your warm winter coat, hat and gloves and join me on a whistle stop tour of the winter binocular sky.

Exhibit 1: The Pleiades/Messier 45/Seven Sisters.

Location: Northwestern Taurus

The main part of the beautiful Pleiades cluster, as observed through 8 x 42 and 10 x 50 binoculars, based on observations taken over several evenings in early January 2019.

Easy to find with the naked eye on winter evenings, the Pleaides is one of the most beautiful and engaging targets in all the heavens. This wondeful asterism consists of over 100 stars scattered across 1.5 angular degrees of sky. My wide angle 8 x 42 shows many of the brightest members, which shine with either a white or blue-white hue against a velvet black sky. Many wonderful stellar associations can be feasted on; doubles, triples and elaborate curving arcs of stars that fan their way from the bright centre of the cluster. My 10 x 50 binocular, stablised on a lightweight monpod, significantly enhances the view with its larger image scale and ability to pull out fainter members. Words cannot fully grasp the beauty of this winter treasure. Small wonder the Pleiades has been the stuff of poetry ever since mankind first gazed upon the heavens. Clean, dust-free optics produce the prettiest views, minimising the scattering of light from its brightest members. Indeed, dusty optics can cause some individuals to mistakingly report seeing the faint reflection nebula around Merope and Alcyone with binoculars of this size, but in reality significantly larger instruments and exceptionally clear and transparent conditions are required to pull out this feature from the pretty asterism. This loosely bound system of stars is estimated to be about 50 million years old, with many of its main stars located about 440 light years from the solar system.

Exhibit 2: Praesepe/Beehive Cluster/Messier 44

Location: Central Cancer

Praesepe; the celestial Manger with Beehive Cluster (M44) seen left of centre.

On a dark, moonless night, cast your gaze between the constellation of Gemini in the west and Leo Major in the east, just north of the ecliptic, and you’re sure to chance on a large foggy patch situated between Delta and Gamma Cancri. Binoculars will unveil a stunning sight; a beautiful quadrilateral of bright stars with a vibrant stellar cluster just left of its centre. Arriving on the meridian late on January and February evenings, the quadrilateral delineates the manger in which the Christ child was laid, with the cluster itself presumably denoting the spot where the holy family lay resting.

The cluster itself is more famously known as the Beehive (Messier 44); an entirely appropriate appellation for this magnificent binocular sight. Several dozen stars are brighter than magnitude 6 but many of these are too close to each other to be cleanly resolved in ordinary binoculars. The cluster contains many fainter members, though while remaining unresolved, contribute a lot of diffused light which greatly enhnaces the visual appearance of the spectacle. Better seen in 10 x 50s than 8 x 42s, the manger structure is lost in the smaller field offered up by larger binoculars, though the cluster stars will be enhanced.The Beehive contains a total of about 200 stars and lies about 590 light years away.

Exhibit 3: Collinder 70

Location: Orion

Collinder 70, of which the three belt stars of Orion are the brightest members.The arrow indicates the rough position of Eta Orionis, for perspective.

Our next target couldn’t be easier to find. Simply point your binocular at the belt stars of Orion (from east to west these stars are called Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka), which radiate with an intense, white hue, pure as the driven snow. But the belt stars are merely the brightest members of a far grander cluster of magnitude 6, 7 and 8 stars collectively known as Collinder 70, snaking their way up and around them. For best results, observe this cluster when the Moon is out of the sky and when Orion reaches its maximum altitude in the south. I’m in two minds about which binocular yields the better view. The 8 x 42 yields a whopping 8.2 degree field giving a wonderful wide-angle perpective, while the 10 x 50 shows some fainter members but in a smaller true field. For this object, I think I’ll give the nod to the former instrument.Where I’m located at 56 degrees north latitude, Orion never gets too high in the sky, and I find it interesting to see how the view improves- a darker sky with more numerous stellar members – as the constellation wheels its way toward the meridian. Each incremental rise in altitude; degree by degree; enhances the view. This is a delightful target for all lovers of the night sky. Don’t leave winter behind without a visit!

Exhibit 4: Melotte 20/ Alpha Persei Association

Location: Perseus

Melotte 20 centred on Alpha Persei(Mirfak). The stars are arrayed south to north, as it appears in late winter.

On a dark, moonless night with good transparency, the constellation Perseus looms high in the sky for northern observers. Our next port of call couldn’t be easier to locate; just point your gaze at Mirfak (Alpha Persei) and hold up your binocular to your eyes. The scene literally explodes with beauty! A torrent of starlight drowns your eyes, as the wide field view of the binocular captures the riot of stellar members in this famous OB Association. In late autumn and early winter, Perseus climbs the vault of the sky from the east, presenting its stars in an east to west orientation, but I have found that the view is that little bit more magnificent when it sinks into the western hemisphere on January evenings, when the same stellar association is arrayed north to south, when the above sketch was made. Containing about 70 hot white and blue-white stars ranging from magnitude 3 through 10, Melotte 20 is quite young; about 50 million years old with the main members being located some 550 light years from the solar system. This author never tires of its beauty; the more you look at it, the more you see!

Exhibit 5: The Hyades/ Melotte 25

Location: Taurus

The Illustrious Hyades; eye candy for ordinary binoculars.

To find our next winter binocular treasure, just cast your gaze on the beautiful orange star, Aldebaran, and bring your binocular to your eyes! Aldebaran is the brightest star of the familiar horns of the Celestial Bull. But with the aid of binoculars, your eye can feast on a sparkling array of double and triple stars of varying glory and hue. Best framed in a 10 x 50 binocular, the cluster spans a whopping 5.5 degrees with as many as 130 or so stars presenting as brighter than magnitude 9. Intriguingly, Aldebaran is not a true member of this system but is actually located about half as far away as the other stars in this sprawling open cluster, which astronomers estimate is about 150 light years away. Few binocular sights enthrall as much as the Hyades. I love the way the cluster changes its orientation in the binocular field as it transitions from the eastern to the western hemispheres of the sky. Using a monopod with the 10 x 50 helps bring out the faintest members that often elude hand held observations.

Exhibit 6: The Double Cluster/Caldwell 14/h & Chi Persei

Location: Perseus

The celebrated Double Cluster in Perseus; eye candy for all apertures.

Our next target is very easy to find; just look midway between the ‘wonky W’ of Cassiopeia, the Queen, and the ‘tip’ of Perseus, the Hero. From a dark, country sky, devoid of moonlight, these clusters are clearly visible to the naked eye as an elongated foggy patch, but turn a binocular on them and you’re in for a real visual treat! Both clusters are about the size of the full Moon and are designated NGC 884 and NGC 869. The richer of the two is NGC 869 (western most) and contains about 200 stellar members, while the eastern-most cluster (NGC 884) has stars that are significantly more scattered. Together they provide a breathtaking sight in ordinary binoculars. The above sketch was made with a 10 x 50 instrument and covers a swathe of sky roughly 5 angular degrees in extent. An eye-catching stream of stars is seen fanning away from both clusters. From high northern latitudes, the Double Cluster is well placed for observation from early autumn through early spring but is best observed when it is highest in the sky after sunset on December and  January evenings. Both clusters are located some 8,000 light years away and consist of mostly young type A and B stars, though larger instruments will help pull out more highly evolved, ruddier members.

Exhibit 7: The Sword Handle of Orion

Location: Orion

The Swordhandle in Orion as seen in my 10 x 50 binocular. The field covers an area slightly larger than 2 angular degrees in width.

Our next target is the Swordhandle of the great constellation of Orion, readily identified with the naked eye even from an urban setting. This is a spectacular sight in any binocular but is especially pretty in a 10 x 50. The eye is immediately drawn to the Great Nebula (M42), one of the nearest star forming regions to the solar system. Newborn stars light up the gas and dust surrounding them and a steady hand will reveal several pinpoint stars within its confines. Just above it lies M43, just separated from M42 by a thin sliver of dark sky. At the top of the field is the pretty open star cluster, NGC 1981 and below it the binocular picks up some faint whisps from the diffuse nebula NGC 1973-77-79. Below M42 lies the comely binocular double star Iota Orionis and Struve 747 which appear to have some nebulosity associated with them. I have no trouble seeing a greenish colour in M42 in larger binoculars or in my 80mm f/5 refractor at medium power, but I find it somewhat elusive in the 10 x 50. Perhaps those observing from a darker site may fare better in this regard. Many of the objects in the sketch are located between about 1200 and 2,300 light years from the solar system.

Exhibit 8: Melotte 111, the Coma Star Cluster

Location: Coma Berenices

The widely spaced Coma Star Cluster as seen in the author’s wide-angle 8 x 42 binocular.

Our final target is for night owls – the celebrated Coma Star Cluster in Coma Berenices – as it doesn’t culminate until well into the wee small hours during early February. Those who prefer to observe earlier in the night might wish to wait until month’s end to explore it. To do justice to this large and sprawling open cluster, a wide angle binocular is the best tool, as the cluster extends over a broad swathe of sky (at least 6 degrees) and is completely lost using telescopes. My 8 x 42 nicely frames this very loose congregation of suns, the brightest of which are of the 5th magnitude of glory. Visually striking, the main feature of this cluster is a distorted ‘V’ shape which renders it rather easy to identify with optical aid. The Coma Star Cluster(not to be confused with the galaxy cluster bearing the same name), with its 50 or so members, is close to the solar system as clusters go; just 285 light years according to the best modern estimate.

Water for the Soul:

Well, I hope that you will take the time to venture out on these long winter evenings to observe these beautiful and accessible objects. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just ordinary binoculars, a warm coat and hat, and a modicum of curiosity!

Thanks for reading and clear skies!

Neil English is the author of a new and ambitious historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, now available in hardback and electronic formats.


De Fideli.

A Survey of Binocular Astronomy Literature.

Every dedicated binocular enthusiast needs a good binocular guide.

Dedicated to Steve Coe (1949-2018)

As an enthusiastic, life-long collector and reader of astronomical literature, I’ve always appreciated the power and value of the printed word.

Having re-ignited a keen interest in binocular observing, I was somewhat saddened to see that many great works of binocular astronomy were being largely ignored by amateurs. To help redress this balance, this blog will take a close look at a number of books dedicated to the art of visual observing using ordinary binoculars, where I offer short reviews of a number of inexpensive works. Their value lies in the collective knowledge of the authors who have produced these works; experience that far exeeds those offered by the self-proclaimed ‘experts’ constantly chattering on internet forums. And you will save yourself a small fortune – time and money – by heeding their advice.

Exhibit A: Discover the Night Sky through Binoculars: A Systematic Guide to Binocular Astronomy.

Author: Stephen Tonkin

Publisher: BinocularSky Publishing

ISBN: 978-1-9164850-0-6

Price: £10

1st edition: October 2018, pp 145.

Want a good binocular guide for Christmas? I have the perfect recommendation for you! Stephen Tonkin’s new book is sure to appeal to binocular enthusiasts of all ages. Tonkin is no flash in the pan. He has authored or contributed to many books I’ve acquired over the years and writes a monthly column on binocular astronomy for Britain’s BBC Sky at Night magazine. He also maintains an excellent website dedicated to binocular astronomy, which can be accessed here.

So I was in no doubt about my expectations concerning his new offering and boy does it deliver! Though it looks like a self-published book, Discover the Night Sky through Binoculars, is a witty and authoratative survey of what can be realistically achieved with binoculars. After a short introduction, the first three chapters cover all the technical stuff you’re likely to need to know about how to get the best out of a decent binocular. There is a particularly humorous mention of some rubbish models, which Tokin refers to as “binocular-shaped objects.” He avoids making specific recommendations about specific models though, which is a good thing, as many units can now be purchased fairly inexpensively that can provide a lifetime of great astronomical views.

The remainder of the book is divided up into the many binocular sights arranged in a month by month sequence. His superlative first-hand knowledge of the heavens shines through as he clearly and effectively shows the reader how to locate each target. All the showpiece binocular targets are covered in this book, and many more besides. Though the sky maps printed in the book are a bit small to see well, one can always download higher quality maps from his website which you can study at your own leisure. I love his description of a phenomenon called pareidolia, which describes the psychological condition of seeing patterns in the starry heavens that are not really there!

I spotted one howler though; on page 8 he says, “our visual system evolved using two eyes.” Mr.Tonkin ought to look at this presentation by an expert on human vision before jumping to such conclusions! Tut tut lol.

It’s very easy to use this book, especially if you already have some experience of the night sky, but it will work equallly well for newbies. Indeed, it’s almost like having an expert right beside you as you make your own binocular observations. The end of the book features several useful appendices, whch cover important topics, such as how to determine the size of your dilated pupil, how to test your binocular for defects, as well as sound advice on how to maintain your binocular in tip-top condition over the months and years.

This is a great, no-frills book, with simple black & white illustrations, but it’s packed full of excellent observing projects that will keep you blissfully happy for many years to come.

Exhibit B: Binocular Highlights: 109 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users

Author: Gary Seronik

Publisher: Sky & Telescope

ISBN: 978-1-940038-44-5

Price: £18.99

2nd Edition 2017, pp 112.

Gary Seronik is no stranger to those who have enjoyed Sky & Telescope magazine over the years. He wrote a regular column; Binocular Highlights; for Sky & Telescope between 1999 and 2016, where he thereafter became the editor of the well regarded Canadian astronomy periodical, SkyNews. This neat little book features 109 objects from all over the northern sky that can be enjoyed with binoculars. After a good introduction, Seronik summarises all the things you need to know about binoculars and makes a specific recommendation that a 10  x 50 unit is probably the best compromise between power and portability. That said, he admits that he is an avowed fan of image stablised models, such as his favourite; a Canon 8 x 42IS.

The remainder of the book is divided up into chapters covering the four seasons of the year, where he presents a series of brief but very engaging mini-essays on the most celebrated of all binocular targets, concentrating on those objects that are best seen from mid-northern latitudes, though he does have an occasional entry of sights only visible in the deep south, such as the illustrious Omega Centauri. The book is lavishly illustrated throughout, with full colour charts typifying a 10 x 50 binocular view, on pages made from thin cardboard rather than regular paper, and is ring bound for convenient use in the field.

If I have any quibbles to make about this book, they are minor; I just wish he could have included more objects. That said, I suspect that, for the vast majority of observers, yours truly included, binocular observing is not really about pushing the envelope to observe overly difficult or challenging objects. The targets themselves are so beautiful that you’re likely to observe them many times during a season, where their orientation in the binocular field changes as they wheel across the sky. Thus, Binocular Highlights is designed for observers who just enjoy looking at the same objects as the season’s progress; and that’s fine.

Now in its second edition, Seronik has added 10 new entries over the original book, which is a bonus. In short, you can’t go wrong with this excellent little field guide but all the while, I can’t help but think those lovely coloured charts go a bit to waste when manhandled in the field.

Exhibit C: Stargazing with Binoculars

Authors: Robin Scagell & David Frydman

Publisher: Philips

ISBN: 978-0-540-09022-8

Price: £13.74(second edition)

1st edition, 2007, pp 208.

It is oft stated that the best way to start out in the fascinating hobby of astronomy is to purchase a good binocular. There is a great deal of truth to this sentiment. Many folk who express a casual interest in stargazing quite often become disillusioned by it, perhaps because they live in a heavily light polluted location, or they made the mistake of purchasing a large, complicated telescope that is just a pain to set up in the field. The wonderful thing about binoculars is that they are much more versatile than dedicated astronomical telescopes, since they can be used during the day to have a good look around, for nature treks, birding, camping, watching sports and the like.

Stargazing with Binoculars takes a much more pedestrian path through the fascinating world of binocular observing. Written by two veteran stargazers, Robin Scagell and David Frydman, who have amassed an enormous amount of field experience with more binoculars than you could shake a proverbial stick at. Their book, now in its second edition, shows you how the sky works and then presents a month by month overview of what can reasonably be seen using binoculars of various sizes. Unlike the aforementioned books, the authors include sections on lunar, planetary and solar observing, before engaging in a comprehensive survey of the binocular market. This is a great book to learn about how binoculars are made, what the various models offer the observer and how to test binoculars prior to purchasing. It also features an excellent chapter on how best to use a given binocular; whether it be hand-held, harness stabilised, or securely mounted in a variety of configurations, from simple monopods to complex binocular mounts.

Stargazing with Binoculars provides a wealth of information that any interested reader will find useful, including how to estimate binocular fields using star tests, making sketches of what one sees in a binocular, as well as sections on observing comets, meteors, artificial satellites and much more besides. It also provides a comprehensive overview of the southern sky, so it is equally useful to those observers who enjoy life in the antipodean.

This is a fabulous, cost-effective book for all binocular enthusiasts, featuring a generous number of full colour images to complement the text, and although I have not seen the second edition( 2013), I’m sure it will be just as good if not better. All in all, a great stocking filler for the binocular enthusiast!

Exhibit D: Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars: A Simple Guide to the Heavens

Author: Stephen James O’Meara

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

ISBN: 978-1843155553

Price: £24.99

2008, pp 148

I’ve always been a fan of Stephen James O’ Meara, a highly accomplished visual observer, who served on the editorial staff of Sky & Telescope for many years before joining Astronomy(USA) as a regular columinist. I have collected and enjoyed all of his books over the years and would heartily recommend them to anyone.

Though he is perhaps better known for his studies of deep sky objects, observing from the big Island of Hawaii using 4- and 5-inch refractors, I was glad to see that he produced a book dedicated to binocular observing to complement his telescopic adventures.

Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars is a large book compared with all the others mentioned above, with dimensions of 12 x 8″. The book opens with a great introduction to exploring the night sky, featuring the Big Dipper as a starting point to find your way around the sky. Here, you’ll learn how to estimate angular separations between objects, how best to perceive star colours, as well as a good introduction to the physiology of the human eye. A surprising amount of information can be gleaned by studying the Big Dipper and how it points to many other interesting objects nearby in the sky. What is somewhat surprising about this work is that O’ Meara categorically states that he used inexpensive binoculars – 7 x 50s and 10 x 50s – in preparing the material for this book. He does not dwell on the intricacies of binocular construction or advocate any particular brand of binocular, in contrast to his other books, where he strongly advertises the virtues of small, expensive TeleVue refractors(been there, done that, not going back).

The book continues by taking a seasonal look at the treasures of the binocular sky, covering each season from spring, summer, autumn and winter. What is immediately obvious is that O’ Meara has an encyclopedic knowledge of the mythology of the heavens, with a particular interest in ancient Egyptian sky lore. While this is all very good, I personally would have liked less discussion on mythology and more about actual observing, but everyone has their own take on how best to present the wonders of the night sky and, in this capacity, O’ Meara carries his own torch.

All the illustrations in this book are black & white, but the charts and diagrams are very easy to read and assimilate. In addition, there is a wealth of good drawings made by the author in this book which greatly adds to the value of this work and while many targets can be seen by the averagely keen eye, some are very challenging, requiring both very dark and transparent skies and a very keen eye to fully appreciate.

Though it is a bit more pricey than the other books discussed above, anyone with a keen interest in the binocular sky will appreciate this very well written book, and I for one feel fortunate indeed to have a copy in my personal library.

Exhibit E: Handbook of Binocular Astronomy: A complete guide to choosing and using binoculars for astronomers – whether beginners or not-so-beginner.

Author: Michael Poxon

Publisher: Starman Books

ISBN: 97809562394-0-2

Price: £12.96

2009, pp 397

Now for something completely different!

Michael Poxon is a name unknown to me, but that ought not deter a curious individual from investigating a book. Often times, to my growing knowledge, it’s ordinary folk who come across as being the most sensible and the most experienced, as opposed to the loud-mouthed guffaws you see on internet forums.

And Poxon puts his all into this very large book!

It begins, as all the others do, by stressing how important binoculars can be to the novice and dedicated astronomer alike. He offers sage advice in purchasing a good binocular, you know; what to avoid and what not to avoid. Curiously, he advises against image stabilised binoculars for the following reasons; they’re often very heavy(over a kilogram) and so do nothing to stave off arm ache, they rely on battery power(which he finds to be a nuisance) because they lose their charge in a few hours. They are also very expensive and the author feels that the money is better spent on conventional optics. Furthermore, he rightly points out that better stablisation can be achieved by using a homemade monopod. In this, I wholeheartedly agree; my brief experience with an image stabilised unit a few years back left me feeling a little underwhelmed and I felt the images were, let’s say a tad “artificial.” And although Poxon certainly advocates the cheap and cheerful porro prism varieties, he also sings the praises of compact, roof-prism models because of their labour-saving low mass in comparison to the former, albeit at some additional cost to the consumer. It is also clear that Poxon is a highly seasoned enthusiast, who has travelled to many places around the world to observe the binocular heavens. Ever the practical man, he has the presence of mind to include the construction of effective, low-tech dew shields for his 10 x 50s used during his prolonged binocular surveys, which he often mounts astride his 36cm telescope.

Chapter 2 deals with the basics of the celestial sphere, the magnitude scale of stars, as well as a very useful table indicating the magnitude limits, field of view and angular resolution of various popular models used by the amateur community. He also offers up valuabale advice on how much one can gain in stabilising a binocular; on page 31, for example, we learn that one can go a hefty 1.5 magnitudes deeper on a stabilised system compared with hand holding; and I’d call that signficant!

What follows are excellent general overviews of the Sun, Moon and planets, eclipses etc. Poxon does an especially good job in helping the reader recognise the many lunar craters and mountain ranges within the resolution remit of a typical 10 x 50 binocular with simple but very effective lunar maps. In Chapter 5 (which is mistakenly printed as Chapter 3), he delves into the fascinating world of deep sky astronomy and what follows is a very impressive listing of interesting variable stars, double and multiple stars (both wide and close-in) as well as a treasure chest of deep sky objects from the entire pantheon of constellations in the sky( the whole 88 are represented).The data is arranged in the form of notes which can be easily followed by the interested observer.

While the illustrations are not of the highest quality, they are generously presented and can be followed without much fuss. The end of the book contains a series of useful appendices with particular emphasis on variable star monitoring.This is an excellent book and, true to its opening lines, has something for every level of enthusiast; from newbie to veteran. I was pleasantly surprised by its excellent content, written by a well heeled amateur.

Exhibit F: Deep Sky Observer’s Guide


Author: Neil Bone

Publisher: Philips

ISBN: 0-540-08585-5

Price: £9.99

2004 pp 223

An honorary mention. The late Neil Bone(1959-2009) was a highly accomplished deep sky observer, public speaker and writer. A microbiologist by profession, he spent many of his evenings observing the glories of the deep sky from his Sussex home. Despite his notoriety and universal respect by the British astronomical community, Bone used simple equipment throughout his life, which included a ShortTube 80, a 10 x 50 binocular and a small Dobsonian telescope to accomplish all his observing goals. Deep Sky Observer’s Guide is a wonderful little book for beginning stargazers, featuring a rich selection of deep sky objects that are accessible to anyone with the same equipment. The first two chapters cover the basics of deep sky observing, including a great overview of the celestial sphere as well as the equipment and observational skills amateurs use to good effect to divine its many secrets. The rest of the book has chapters dedicated to particular deep sky real estate, including galaxies, asterisms, globular clusters, diffuse nebulae, open clusters, planetary nebulae and supernova remnants. Although the book is not about using binoculars per se, Bone used his 10 x 50 to make excellent observations of many of his subjects and are preserved for posterity in the pages of this literary gem. To see just what can be accomplished with a humble 10 x 50 binocular, this now classic text is a great place to spend some time. Many of the deep sky objects he describes were observed using his trusty binocular, and despite his premature passing, his rich word pictures still have the ability to inspire me. In amatam memoriam.



Exhibit G: Binocular Stargazing

Author: Mike D. Reynolds

Publisher: Stackpole Books

ISBN: 978-0-8117-3136-2

Price: £5.99

2005, pp 213


Mike D. Reynolds is a name familiar to many American and Canadian observers. A professor of astronomy and Director Emeritus at Chabot Space & Science Center at Oakland, California, he is probably best known for his popular writings in Astronomy Magazine, as well as his excellent books on eclipses and meteor watching. Binocular Stargazing is a very well written and thought-out book, covering a lot of ground. After a short foreword from celebrated comet discoverer, David H. Levy, the first three chapters provide all the information you’re likely to want to know about binoculars, past and present, written in a friendly yet authoratative style. What is very refreshing to see in this title is that, like nearly all the other authors of binocular astronomy, Reynolds emphasises that one can obtain excellent results with only a modest investment; a philosophy yours truly also shares.

Chapters 4 through 7 offer excellent overviews of how binoculars can be used for lunar & solar observing, before engaging in a thorough but non-technical treatise on the wider solar system objects, the distant stars, as well as presenting a great introduction to deep sky observing. One slight niggle pertains to the author’s persistent use of the term “pair of binoculars” throughout the book. Though certainly not a big deal and still used my many observers, the phrase doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. The word ‘binocular’ implies duplicity. Better to use ‘binocular’ to refer to a single instrument and ‘binoculars’ when referring to more than one such instrument.

Chapters 8 through 12 offer up one of the best surveys of the binocular sky I’ve seen, arranged in seasons, ending with a special chapter devoted to observing from southern skies. Throughout, Reynolds displays his first-hand experience in the field and has a talent for making the subject matter very accessible. The science presentation is first-rate, as one would expect from a guy with an advanced degree in the science. Variable stars are particularly well represented in this title.

What I particularly liked is the inclusion of extensive appendices (A through I) at the back of the book. One appendix in particular, emphasises the age-old tradition of note-making and keeping, sketching and the like; an activity of great importance even in this age of instant digital gratification.

The text is quite generously illustrated in monochrome, though some of the images could have come out better, they are certainly good enough not to distract or confuse the interested reader. All in all, Binocular Stargazing is a highly recommended book for binocular enthustiasts, and I for one will continue to enjoy dipping in and out of it in the future.

Exhibit H: Touring the Universe Through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer’s Guidebook.

Author: Philip S. Harrington

Publisher: Wiley

ISBN: 978-1620456361

Price: £18.34

1990, pp 306

It is hard to believe that nearly 30 years has gone by since the publication of Philip Harrington’s, Touring the NIght Sky with Binoculars. Back then, I was still an undergraduate with only a 7 x 50 porro prism binocular and a 60mm classic refractor to explore the night sky. Pluto was still a planet and the first CCD imaging pioneers were beginning to tinker with their crude chips to obtain electronic images of the celestial realm; most were still using photographic film. And while amatuer astronomy has changed beyond measure in only three decades, Harrington’s book provides solid evidence that some texts will never go out of fashion.

The preface of this now classic text reveals the modus operandi of the author, who admits that the book was primarily written for himself! Giving an honourable mention to Garrett P. Serviss’ 1888 work, Astronomy with an Opera Glass, Harrington weaves together an enormous body of field knowledge, which both complements and far exceeds the collective wisdom of his distinguished Victorian predecessor.

Harrington was one of the earliest amateur astronomers to call attention to the considerable advantages of using two eyes, explaining that gains of up to 40 per cent can be achieved in resolving fainter, low-contrast deep sky objects. This much is made clear in the short introduction to the book, but the march of time has thoroughly vindicated his binocular evangelism, as evidenced by the great popularity of binoviewing, as well the growth of binocular astronomy in general among the global amateur community.

The book, as Harrington makes clear, is actually a collection of concise notes which he himself compiled in his adventures under the night sky. Eschewing any discussion on equipment, the author launches into fabulous discussions of the Moon, Sun, planets and minor bodies of the solar system, before wading into the pantheon of objects existing far beyond our shores. Beginning in Chapter 7, Harrington provides concise but highly accurate depictions of a sumptuous listing of deep sky objects:- stars, open clusters, nebulae and galaxies, as seen in a variety of binoculars, both large and small.

In a departure from most other authors, Harrington recommends the 7 x 50 above the 10 x 50 as the best all round instrument for hassle-free binocular observing, but it is also evident that he has gained a considerable amount of experience behind a larger 11 x 80 instrument. Every constellation in the heavens is discussed separately, rather than approaching the subject from a season by season perspective. This works supremely well, being more reminscent of Robert Burnham Junior’s three volume work, Burnham’s Celestial Objects, than anything else.

While this hardback text was not designed to be used in the field, it is an indispensible work for planning and reflecting upon the sights seen on a clear, dark night. I find myself using it to compare and contrast it to my own observations and notes and to challenge myself to see more with a given instrument.

Remarkably, any discussions on binoculars per se are reserved for short appendices at the back of the book. Like all truly seasoned observers, Harrington avoids making specific recommendations, emphasing that one can do a great deal with modest equipment. Appendix B in particular, discusses how resourceful amateurs have hobbled together exceptional mounting strategies that greatly increase the comfort of viewing through truly giant binoculars, featuring such individuals as Norm Butler, Jerry Burns and John Riggs, to name but a few.

Although technology has certainly moved on (just look at the quaint photographs used to illustrate the text!) since Harrington first collated the work for this text, it is unlikely to be superceded by anything in the modern age. Indeed, it remains, for me, the definitive volume of binocular astronomy and shall continue to hold a special place in my astronomical library. Thoroughly recommended!

Concluding Words:

Just like in the case of telescopes, we are fortunate to live at a time in history where quality binoculars can be had for relatively small amounts of money. There is a bewildering number of models available to suit everyone’s budget, and even the least expensive units are immeasurably superior to the naked eye. But as all the authors of these books make clear, what is most important is that one gets out under a starry sky and use the instrument. Of course, one can decide to avoid the collective wisdom of these writers, but it will most likely lead the researcher down many dead ends (I speak from the well of my own experience), where one is tempted to keep buying ever ‘better’ models in the mistaken belief that grass is really greener on the other side. Unfortunately, this is largely the state of affairs on our telescope and astronomy internet forums, where folk seem to be more interested in a said instrument than actually using it. This is highly regrettable; indeed it is a very real kind of poverty, missing, as it were, the woods for the trees, but it can easily be countered by just getting on with the equipment we have.

I hope you have found these mini-reviews of some use and I do hope that amateurs everywhere will avail of these well thought out resources, written by people who have a real passion for observing the night sky and for sharing their knowledge with others.


Was it something I said?

Folk fae the fora having a guid chinwag about ‘binocular’, ‘pairs of binoculars’ etc.

Changin’ culture ken.

De Fideli.