Book Reviews for Three Guides to the Stars and Constellations

Over the years many have asked me to recommend books to help them in their study of stars and constellations.

In this column, I will provide reviews of three books that I have consulted during my formative years in the hobby.

All three proved to be the most valuable to me for my then budding interest in astronomy and I’m sure the same would be true for most anyone who takes the time to use them today.

(Image credit: St. Martin’s Press)

A Golden Guide to St. Martin’s Press, 2001
160 pages

It was my very first astronomy book, which I received when I was 8 years old, and which in my opinion is still among the best as an introduction not only to stars and constellations, but also to astronomy . “Stars”, first published in 1951, is part of a series of pocket gold guides to nature and the physical sciences, which have been updated over the years, most recently in 2001.

The book was written by naturalist Herbert S. Zim (1909-1994) and astronomer Robert H. Baker (1883-1964). The latter was once head of the astronomy department at the University of Illinois and was also the author of what is still considered a classic among university textbooks on astronomy (“Introduction to astronomy“, Van Nostrand publishers). Baker is also the author of two other excellent books, “When the stars come out” and “Presentation of the constellations“, both published by Viking Press.

Zim and Baker’s text is complemented by 150 magnificent color paintings by James Gordon Irving (1913-2012), whose paintings have been exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History and the National Audubon Society in New York.

This book was a huge help to me in identifying the brightest stars and constellations at a very young age. There are 23 maps that show the constellations as lines connecting the major stars with the naked eye, drawn in pictorial images of what each star pattern is meant to represent.

Additional charts and diagrams are helpful, although the four seasonal star charts used to locate these stars are a bit confusing.

Nevertheless, the book contains a lot of valuable information and observing tips regarding the sun, moon, planets and stars, as well as explanations of unusual atmospheric phenomena such as the red color of the sun at sunrise and sunset. sun, rainbows, lunar and solar halos as well as the aurora borealis or aurora borealis.

If you’re new to astronomy as a hobby, this little handbook is perfect for anyone who wants to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. Written in easy-to-read language, it is ideal for use at home, as well as taking on vacation or camping.

(Image credit: Houghton Mifflin Company)

Houghton Mifflin Society, Boston, 2008
160 pages

As I noted for the “stars” in the Golden Guide, there were pictorial images of the person, creature, or object that a constellation represented. But 70 years ago, Hans Augusto Rey (1898-1977) devised a different methodology for identifying constellations using his own stick star patterns and introduced them in “The Stars: A New way to see them”, a guide published in 1952. and revised several times since. Indeed, this book was extremely popular, going through a number of printings and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Many people swear by Rey’s patterns, claiming they’re easier to learn and easier to see in the sky.

I first came across a copy of Rey’s book when I was 10 and was immediately intrigued by a number of her clever creations, such as the Gemini twins holding hands (most often used in the book advertisement).

There are, however, many legends and mythological stories that date back thousands of years explaining the creation of the constellations. But for his book, Rey mostly ignored those ancient legends and performed radical surgery on virtually every constellation, seemingly to conform only to his ideas of what a particular star image should look like.

It makes you wonder who had the more fertile imagination: those cultures that actually invented the constellations so many centuries ago, or Rey himself?

Some examples:

For Ursa Major, Rey poked the end of the Big Dipper’s handle – long believed in mythology to be the Big Dipper’s tail – into her nose!

In the case of Cetus, the whale, he turned the tail of this mammal towards his face, even though the star Deneb Kaitos is there; Arabic for the southern tail of Cetus.

Hercules has always been considered a kneeling giant with his brightest star, Rasalgethi marking “the kneeling head”. But Rey turns Hercules into a club wielding man with Rasalgethi scoring his left foot.

As for Virgo, her brightest star, Spica, is said to mark an ear of wheat held in her hand. But according to Rey, Spica is Virgo’s “brightest gem”, placed, he writes, “in an unusual place” (her behind).

And then, in cases where certain constellations came reasonably close to what they represented, Rey couldn’t keep quiet enough. In some cases, as with Pegasus, the flying horse and Taurus, the bull, his stick-like renditions were decidedly forced and not really obvious, looking more like abstract art – something resembling sketches by Pablo Picasso.

Despite these drawbacks, I still really like “The Stars: A New Way of Seeing Them” as an easy to understand book which, among other things, explains to the novice how not to confuse a planet with a star and cites the reasons for the movements planetary. The speed of light and light years are explained on a completely non-technical level, and overall this book does an admirable job of explaining some of the complicated concepts about the night sky and what’s in it.

And I’d even consider Rey’s abstract patterns a challenge for those looking to hone their star-finding skills.

(Image credit: Harper and Row)

Harper and Row, New York, 1970

Occasionally I have mentioned Henry M. Neely (1877-1963) who, after a successful career in radio, entered astronomy relatively late. He was a longtime lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York and became one of the nation’s leading popularizers of astronomy. Sadly, he died before I had a chance to hear any of his talks, but Neely wanted everyone to share in the beauty and splendor of the heavens. His 1946 book “A Primer for Star-Gazers” was last updated in 1970 and remains a powerful yet simple tool in the study of stars and constellations.

Unfortunately, the revised distances for many stellar and deep sky objects dating back to the first edition of the book have never been updated. Thus, on page 195, the Andromeda galaxy is listed as being 750,000 light-years away, while current figures are more than three times that. But the author’s purpose in this book is to help you find the stars, not fill you with facts and figures. Neely visualized his reader as simply wanting to recognize the major stars and constellations without doing any real study of astronomy.

“A Primer” follows this philosophy throughout. It contains 96 sky charts all drawn by Neely, with all navigation stars marked as such, and with a unique calendar that indicates which charts to use for prominent objects. This book turns out to be an elaborate but easy to use star finder. Follow the instructions in Chapter 5 (“How to Use This Book”), then exit, select the appropriate card for the evening, rotate the book as shown, look at the page, then at the sky, and there should be the desired card. constellation. Phonetic spellings of star and constellation names are given alongside the regular spellings. The Big and Little Dippers and Cassiopeia’s “W” are chosen as the first groups to be recognized, for later use in locating others. The book provides excellent descriptions of how to find each constellation and the notable objects within it.

Neely had a predilection for transforming certain classic star patterns into geometric shapes. Thus, we are presented with “The Kite in Charioteer”, “The Long Corner of Gemini”, “The Great Triangle of Virgo”, and representing Hercules as another kite… but also with a tail.

He was perhaps the very first to transform Sagittarius from an archer into a teapot (Chapter XXIV) and on page 187 he incorporated the stars of Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila into a baseball game in the sky. Deneb was the marble; Epsilon Cygni, first base; Eta, second base; Delta, third base; and Sadr, the pitcher’s mound. Left fielder Vega and center fielder Albireo run for a fly ball into left center field, while right fielder Altair watches. Such imaginative variants of constellations are quite effective in teaching the sky, especially to young people.

The only negative for this book that I would register is in chapter 16, where Neely transforms the constellations of Andromeda, Perseus, Aries and Triangle into his own creation: The Yacht.

I have to tell you that in all my years of observing the sky, I have never been able to visualize it, although Neely claims that “…it doesn’t require as much imagination as most traditional figures allegedly seen by ancient astronomers.”

With all due respect to Neely, I disagree!

Like some of Rey’s designs, The Yacht is a very abstract star pattern. Good luck!

On the whole, however, this beautiful book should make it easy for a beginner to locate all the stars and constellations noted in this text and, as Henry Neely himself would wish, most enjoyable.

Joe Rao is an instructor and guest speaker at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes on astronomy for natural history journalthe Farmers Almanac and other publications. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Alycia R. Lindley