So it is raining, or cloudy, or the neighbors turned on all of their outside lighting to stop the burglars’ invasion from above. Perhaps there is a full moon. You wash down another Prozac and stick your head underneath the pillow, hoping for swift deliverance from this world.
Now, stop right there! Amateur astronomers in Michigan must be flexible. Perhaps you can get a degree in Meteorology and learn to enjoy the cruel weather. You may even pray for rain. I know, I know. It is always like this in Michigan. But there are other enchanting things to discover. You might even end up getting depressed when the night is clear! This column is directed toward things one can do when the weather is unwilling. Take your pick.
All right, already, hope is just around the corner! (For starters, if you have nothing better with which to occupy your mind, you can begin by counting the clichés in this column.)
I, myself, do not get depressed on rainy and/or cloudy days. That kind of weather always gives me an excuse to stay in and read passionately about my favorite subjects or to use my computer for study or play. I do not even feel guilty about leaving my telescope neatly packed away in foul weather. I begin Plan X: READ!
Let me start out with one of my favorite reference books, Longman Illustrated Dictionary of Astronomy & Astrophysics. I have seen it on the shelves at the Bloomfield Township Public Library and at the Westland Public Library. Your own public library may very well have a copy. I have found it more useful than any other little book in my collection because of its format and portability. It is difficult to find a place which sells Longman; Borders informed me a long time ago that it could not order it, because it is printed in Great Britain. You probably will need to go over to Canada. As it so happened, after I had made telephone contact with a bookseller in downtown Windsor, Ontario, Canada, three copies of the book “magically” turned up on Border’s (Birmingham 13 Mile at Southfield) shelves.
The last printing of my copies (I bought all three that were on their shelves) was in 1988, so it is not as current as perhaps it should be. But I believe almost all of the information is still valid. I seldom search for any topic without finding it defined in this little volume, complete with illustrations and ready to literally “point” you in the direction of similar material within its covers. It is an illustrated astronomy and astronautics dictionary, but the subjects are arranged adjacent to other similar subject-matter. Therefore, you can read it like any ordinary book; however, you must always use the index in order to find specific subjects. This great little book has seldom let me down.
A similar book, but one which is organized alphabetically, is: The Facts on File Dictionary of Astronomy, Third Edition (1994), edited by Valerie Illingworth. It, too, is full of important information--this time in Astronomy and Astrophysics--but to coordinate the information, you must skip around throughout the volume, which can be bothersome and time consuming. However, it has yet to let me down in my search for understanding.
A third book, The Handy Space Answer Book, by Phillis Engelbert and Diane L. Dupuis, also has a lot of important information. There are short discussions of various topics which are again (as in Longman) grouped together by general subject-matter. You will find it a pleasure to read. It is the kind of book that you can pick up and put down with regularity without having that usual feeling of discontinuity. Just place a bookmark at the page and continue later when it again rains, snows, drizzles, clouds up, etc.
With these three books, you are now ready to read any other popular astronomy book with the full knowledge that most of the important definitions and/or explanations are in one or more of them, complete with illustrations where needed. These books are not intended for the professional astronomer. Of course, there are other, more elaborate books. These three seldom abandon me.
Now, to begin with the real meat. A good book to start with, if you have not yet read it, is Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The only mathematics equation in the book is E=mc^2! I, myself, found that I could tackle more difficult scientific articles and books after reading it the first time. (Soon thereafter I read it a second time in order to preserve the knowledge I had gained. I believe A Brief History of Time is a book which all knowledgeable people should read. Non-scientists most likely will need to struggle with some of the concepts. Of course, time marches on, and the information contained in some of these books might be out of date. However, if you are a neophyte, you will never know the difference.
In the future, I shall lead you down the garden path of books on astronomy, physics (including astrophysics and cosmology) which have been written for the general (non scientific) public. Occasionally, I might spice it up with profound (deep, beyond understanding) tomes which you can immediately forget. They are there to keep one humble.
But do not forget these books; you may need one of them later.