Seeing in the Dark Summary
by Timothy Ferris

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Seeing in the Dark Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Through most of the twentieth century, there have been clear qualitative differences between the research of professional astronomers, who pursued the study of the planets, stars, and galaxies for a living, and that of amateur astronomers, for whom such study was an avocation—even though in some cases it was an all-consuming avocation. Professional research became increasingly dependent upon expensive telescopes, laboratory equipment, sophisticated mathematical skills, and knowledge of auxiliary disciplines such as physics and chemistry. The symbol of professional astronomical research was the massive dome, containing a huge telescope, sitting on top of a remote mountain. In contrast, the typical amateur was hunched over a small telescope in the backyard, or observing with binoculars or even with the naked eye.

A change occurred toward the end of the century. Sophisticated research equipment and moderately sized telescopes became relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. Not only did the research of these amateurs begin to more closely resemble that of their professional counterparts, but some have become unpaid research scientists. Ferris calls this a “revolution,” but historians of American astronomy might identify it as a return to a nineteenth century model, to the world of astronomy before academic credentials and paychecks defined an astronomer. Back in the 1850’s, as at the turn of the twenty-first century, the distinctions between the paid and the unpaid researcher did not necessarily translate into qualitative differences in research.

This book tells the story of those men and women, often lacking formal training in astronomy, often highly successful in their day work, who dedicate significant portions of their waking hours to the increase of astronomical knowledge without any thought of monetary reward. These schoolteachers and business executives, housewives and journalists, physicians and artists observe simply because they love to do it.

Ferris, an experienced journalist and science writer, is a master of the brief interview and the word picture. In these pages he presents the famous and not-so-famous figures in amateur astronomy. Among these are Patrick Moore, the British “patriarch of astronomy popularizers,” who has authored more than sixty books and is the best known amateur astronomer in the English-speaking world, and David Levy, almost equally well known to his contemporaries, who was a respected but obscure searcher for comets until he codiscovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1993. When that comet crashed spectacularly into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 1994, the images on television made an indelible impression on audiences about the potential threat from the sky. Famous in another way is Brian May, one of the founders of the British rock group Queen. Unlike many of his fellow amateurs, May was trained in astronomy and actually worked as a professional astronomer, doing research in infrared astronomy, especially interplanetary dust. Driven by two passions—music and astronomy—he chose the former to earn his living but has continued to observe for his personal pleasure. However, most of the men and women Ferris spotlights are known only within the circles of amateur observers.

According to Ferris, three technological breakthroughs have driven the revolution in amateur astronomy. The first was the Dobsonian reflecting telescope, invented by John Dobson, a San Francisco monk. By using inexpensive materials and a simple design, including mounting the telescope in a box, Dobson made it possible for amateurs to construct relatively large but inexpensive telescopes, capable of deep-sky observing. Second was the inexpensive charge-coupled device, or CCD. These light- sensitive chips had quickly become the mainstay of professional astronomers. As prices plummeted, it was possible for someone of moderate means to place a CCD at the end of a Dobsonian telescope and have “light gathering capacities comparable to...

(The entire section is 1,703 words.)