Friday, December 15, 2006

Give the Gift of the Stars

Give the Gift of the Stars
by Dave Adalian

If there’s someone on your holiday list who’s got stars in their eyes, then the gift of astronomy might be a perfect solution, and it can be done without breaking the bank.

The best way to start someone on the hobby of amateur astronomy is to get them out under the heavens with nothing but their naked eyes.

To learn the bright stars and the constellations they’ll need a set of star maps, which can be found in lots of places, either on their own in sky atlases or as part of a publication.

Atlases tend to be pricey and are definitely geared toward the experienced observer using a telescope, so for the beginner a better gift is a book or perhaps a magazine subscription.

Terence Dickinson’s Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe is an excellent title for would-be astronomers young and old. It includes a good set of simple maps as well as advice on getting started in the hobby and chapters on various aspects of the night sky such as planets, star clusters and galaxies.

For very young stargazers, Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey, author of the Curious George books, might be a better fit.

For someone who’s already read a bit about the hobby, a magazine subscription is a better idea. Both Astronomy and Sky and Telescope feature monthly calendars with sky charts and have the added bonus of articles on stargazing for all experience levels.

Buying a telescope is usually a personal experience for the amateur observer and isn’t something that should be done without lots of research, so I don’t recommend it as a gift idea. But, a good sturdy pair of binoculars can make an excellent first set of optics for beginning stargazers.

Binoculars are rated by a pair of numbers separated by an X. The first number is the magnification, and the second is the size of the objective lenses. To be useful for astronomy, binoculars should be at least 7x35s--they magnify objects by seven times and have lenses 35mm wide. Better would be a pair of 10x50s, which can usually be had at local department and sporting goods stores for $20 to $40.

And if the stars in your would-be observer’s eyes fade, binoculars have dozens of other terrestrial uses, from bird watching to viewing sporting events and won’t go to waste.

If none of this appeals then remember that it’s cold on those long winter watches after dark. The gift of a warm hat or a thick sweater also suits those who spend their nights under the stars.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta in December of 2006.

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