Seeing in the Dark : How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril

by Timothy Ferris

Hardcover, 2002




Simon & Schuster, (2002)


Be introduced to the wonders of the night sky, making casual stargazing or serious amateur astronomy a part of your life. Follows in the footsteps of Timothy Ferris' prior PBS specials The Creation of the Universe and Life Beyond Earth.

User reviews

LibraryThing member michaelm42071
Ferris combines three different narrative lines in Seeing in the Dark. One is a reminiscence about his own experiences stargazing, beginning when he was a boy on Key Biscayne, Florida, and moving to the present. He now watches through a computer-controlled telescope in his own observatory on Sonoma Mountain, and in one chapter he compares himself to John Henry, reluctantly succumbing to technology—not a steam drill but a go-to telescope.
The second narrative line in the book is a series of discussions with notable amateur observers, the most surprising being Brian May (“We Will Rock You”) from the British rock group Queen, who turns out to have an advanced degree in astronomy. Others include the most acute visual observers of modern times, Stephen James O’Meara and Barbara Wilson, as well as comet-finder David Levy, revered moonwatcher Patrick Caldwell-Moore, amateur planetary photographer Don Parker, and Edgar O. Smith, the rich entrepreneur who built the 1.2-meter Calypso telescope, the only privately-owned telescope amidst the array of professional instruments on Kitt Peak in Arizona. The theme of this part of the book is that modern astronomy involves cooperation among professional and amateur astronomers in a worldwide network. This modern development (or redevelopment, since early astronomical work was largely done by amateurs such as William Herschel) came about because of technology (many amateurs have scopes as large as those in small professional observatories, and the CCD or charge-coupled device camera enables faster photography on smaller instruments) as well as an increasing interest in astronomy over the last decades, resulting in a world-wide watch on planetary phenomena, on the occurrence of supernovae, and on other celestial events, all of which cannot be matched by the professionals, whose limited time on large instruments tends to be dedicated to circumscribed research projects.
The last narrative line of the book is an introduction to astronomy: structuring the other narratives is a systematic movement through the universe from the solar system, starting with the sun and moving outward through the planets to the Milky Way Galaxy, other galaxies, galaxy clusters, and finally quasars, the farthest, and earliest, of observable phenomena.
The way Ferris links his narrative lines may be seen in “The Dark Ages,” a late chapter containing his discussion of supernovae and quasars. He begins the chapter with a personal reference—ending a night of observation by looking at 3C273, a quasar two billion light years distant. He includes conversations with both amateur and professional astronomers in the chapter. And he also shows how supernovae observation demonstrates the amateur-professional cooperation that is one of his main themes: physicists had long suspected that a blast of neutrinos would leave a supernovae several hours before the light of its explosion departed. In 1987 they got a chance to test the theory, when neutrino detectors observed neutrinos from deep space on February 23rd. The evidence was completed by an amateur astrophotographer in Australia who photographed the supernova’s light explosion three hours later, and by another amateur astronomer’s observation confirming that no supernova was visible two hours after the neutrinos began streaming in, thus demonstrating that the neutrino blast preceded the supernova’s light by somewhere between two and three hours.
Ferris is most entertaining when he recounts his own experiences and when he visits other amateur astronomers, talks with them, and gushes over their equipment. The tour of the universe is perhaps the least successful of the book’s parts, though Ferris tries hard to make the book into an introduction to stargazing. He includes appendices with observing techniques, details of Messier objects arranged by season, and even a few star maps.
Seeing in the Dark will not compete with books like David Levy’s The Sky: A User’s Guide or Terence Dickinson’s Nightwatch as a practical introduction to observing, but it is an extremely clear and readable book for those curious about what amateur observers do. Its examples of cooperation between amateur and professional astronomers make the case for a partnership unique among the sciences. And for those of us already hooked on skywatching, it is a fascinating way to meet some of our heroes, such as Stephen O’Meara, David Levy, Patrick Moore, and Ferris himself.
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LibraryThing member rhondalee65
Excellent book - Ferris never dissapoints. Very good mix of science, history and story-telling.
LibraryThing member wenestvedt
This entertaining & instructive book made me *really* want a decent telescope. Instead I got a small one, and was defeated by mosquitos and light pollution. But some day I'm going to re-read this and take another run at it!
LibraryThing member fpagan
Mostly an extended paean to Earth-based observation of the solar system.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Ferris writes with such an easy style. This isn't just about deep space, astronomy and star gazing. It is not dry and didactic. This is a memoir about Ferris's childhood cardboard telescope dreams becoming reality. He takes us back to when he was just a kid, looking up in the Florida night sky, dreaming about rockets and moon walks; witnessing his first solar eclipse. It's about sharing conversations with other amateurs, proving once and for all amateur stargazers really know what they are doing, despite not having the big buck telescopes and high-end gadgets. Seeing in the Dark is also about the collaborations between backyard stargazers and the people who have the money to make research happen. Take Brian May, for example. If he hadn't been a musician be would have been an astronomer. Because of his success with his band, Queen, he has been able to support his hobby of backyard stargazing with better technology than the average hobbyist. Lastly, Seeing in the Dark is broad-based educational. I learned of a new place I want to visit, the Roden Crater in Arizona and I learned the difference between a meteoroid, a meteor, and a meteorite. I think too many people use those words interchangeably. Ferris cleared it up for me, once and for all.… (more)
LibraryThing member baubie
Absolutely amazing book where Timothy Ferris extends his passion of stargazing onto you in a brilliant piece of story telling. Not only do you learn a lot about the stars and the planets, you earn an appreciation of the passion and dedication that amateur astronomers have. Reading this book will undoubtedly make you want to rush out and buy a telescope to view the night sky with. Even if you don't, the sense of wonder you'll get from reading this book is worth every page. I found it hard to put this book down, and felt a sense of disappointment when Ferris would leave one topic for the next. Don't let this be a negative though - it's just evidence for how wonderfully written this book is.… (more)
LibraryThing member pussreboots
Seeing in the Dark is a short but dense series of essays on different aspects of amateur astronomy. Each chapter is a different topic or a different experience from Timothy Ferris's life.

Ferris begins his fascinating book by describing how he got hooked on astronomy as a child. He includes a loving review of an older science book: A Child's Geography of the World by V. M. Hillyer. I was so excited by his review of his childhood favorite, that I bought a copy for myself!

Seeing in the Dark took me longer than I expected to read. It's full of so many interesting details and facts that I had to savor each chapter. One of my favorite bits was his meeting with Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), the man who discovered Pluto. Apparently the Smithsonian asked him for the telescope he used to make the discovery. Tombaugh turned down their request. Why? He was still using it!
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LibraryThing member boweraj
Ferris turns out to be an extremely good story teller. However, for someone looking for a follow up to The Whole Shebang or Coming of Age in the Milky Way, this is probably not your book. Very enjoyable though.


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