A two-volume library for the active observer: the RASC Observer’s Handbook and the Pocket Sky Atlas (background). Photo by Gary Seronik
By Gary Seronik
Imagine a device that can display information highlighting all the interesting sky events for a given night, provide the current configuration of Jupiter’s satellites, answer your most probing questions about the physical properties of the planets and their moons, and yield detailed information on upcoming eclipses and occultations. And that’s just the start. This device functions equally well in bitter cold and extreme humidity, is completely shockproof, weighs only 400 grams, and doesn’t need a battery. How much would you pay for such an wonder? How about $27.95!
I’m referring of course to the Observer’s Handbook published annually by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. It’s everything I just described, and much, much more. My copy of the 2015 edition arrived in the mail today, and leafing through it, I was again reminded of how astonishingly complete it is. It really is a wonderful resource for the active observer. One of my favourite sections is the “The Sky Month By Month.” In a single, two-page spread, I can see at a glance what’s going on any given night. And if I’m not sure what to observe, I dig into one of the many lists of deep-sky treasures. While it’s true that you can generate much of the same information with computer software, that approach is actually more time consuming. And if you bring your computer or tablet outside to use with your scope, you have to concern yourself with the effects of dew, dust, and battery life.
More than just a field guide, the Observer’s Handbook is also a fantastic cloudy-night companion. You can bone up on the fine points of optics and observing techniques by reading such fine contributions as Roy Bishop’s detailed discussion of binocular performance, or Lee Johnson and Bill Robert’s excellent article about magnification and contrast in deep-sky observing, or Josh Roth’s remarkably useful piece about choosing eyeglasses for night-sky viewing. It’s all in there — a veritable crash course in observational astronomy.
One of the Handbook’s greatest assets is that it manages to cram all this information into a 354-page, 51⁄2-by-81⁄2-inch package. Indeed, if your sensibilities hew to the minimalist side of things, as mine do, you will probably find that this book and the Pocket Sky Atlas are all you really need for an enjoyable night at the telescope. And that’s pretty wonderful.