October 22nd: The Armchair Universe


Date: October 22, 2009

Title: The Armchair Universe


Podcaster: Carolyn Collins Petersen

Organization: Loch Ness Productions (http://www.lochnessproductions.com/index2.html)
Music by Geodesium (http://www.geodesium.com)

Description: Looking for a good astronomy book? Come along on a short tour of Carolyn Collins Petersen’s bookshelves as she recommends some good books for stargazing and armchair astronomy.

Bio: Carolyn Collins Petersen is a science writer and show producer for Loch Ness Productions, a company that creates astronomy documentaries and other materials. She works with planetariums, science centers, and observatories on products that explain astronomy and space science to the public. Her most recent projects were the Griffith Observatory astronomy exhibits in Los Angeles and the California’s Altered State climate change exhibits for San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. She has co-authored several astronomy books, written many astronomy articles, and is currently working on a new documentary show for fulldome theaters, a vodcast series for MIT’s Haystack Observatory, and a podcast series for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Loch Ness Productions, a unique multimedia production company specializing in cosmically creative content and space music for planetarium and fulldome theaters worldwide. Loch Ness Productions also works with exhibit designers, observatories, science institutions and publishers to bring a love of astronomy, Earth science, and space science to audiences everywhere. On the web at LochNessProductions.com.


The Armchair Universe
October 22, 2009

Hello. I’m Carolyn Collins Petersen, TheSpacewriter, and I’ve always got my nose in a book.

People often ask me what astronomy and space science books I recommend. To be honest, there are so many good ones out there that I have a tough time picking out just a few – and more are coming out all the time. Since they make good gifts for the astronomy fan in your life (or even for yourself), here are some recommendations based on what I have on my own bookshelves.

My personal favorites include stargazing guides and armchair astronomy explorations. They’re good company on those nights when I just want to settle in with a good book, or when the clouds roll in, and no amount of wishing for a sucker hole is going to give me a view of the stars and planets.

One question I get a lot is, “What can you recommend for young people who are just getting started in astronomy?” Without hesitation, I always recommend two books that are excellent for children AND adults. They’re both by H.A. Rey, who also co-wrote the Curious George books with his wife Margaret. The first is called Find the Constellations and it’s a great guide to star patterns. It’s illustrated with cute little drawings and is aimed at the younger set. Yet, I still find myself reading it from time to time and I’m completely charmed by how well it stands up all these decades after it was first written.

H.A. Rey’s other stargazing guide is called The Stars: A New Way to See Them and it’s aimed at older kids and adults. I can’t think of two better ways to get acquainted with the sky while waiting for the clouds to clear out.

Another book that I find useful both indoors and out is called Nightwatch by Terence Dickinsen. On the nights when you’re outdoors under the stars, you can use the star charts to find your way around the sky. When you’re forced to do your stargazing indoors, the book provides a great introduction to basic sky objects and observational astronomy.

Recently, I got a copy of a work called the National Geographic Guide to the Night Sky. It may be a guidebook, but it’s also profusely illustrated with some of the latest observatory images. I sat down to flip through this book, and two hours later, I was still browsing the descriptions of constellations, star charts, and solar system objects.

Well, what if you want to learn more about the stars you’re observing – how they are born, live, and die? My friend Jim Kaler, an astronomer at the University of Illinois in Champaign, wrote a lovely work called The Little Book of Stars. It may really BE little, but it’s full of the kind of information about stars that makes you stop and think about how cool the science of astrophysics can really be.

Some years ago, I got interested in writing about the multi-wavelength Universe – that is, the cosmos we see in different wavelengths of light. So, I sat down with my old friend Jack Brandt and we wrote a book called Visions of the Cosmos published in 2003. We wanted to give readers a first-hand look at the Universe in as many ways as possible.

After working on that book, I began looking for similar explorations of the cosmos by other authors. I found one in 2005 called simply Universe. It’s billed as the definitive visual guide to the Universe (note: published by DK Books.) I never tire of looking at it and I’ve often used it as a quick reference guide, especially, when I’m working on an exhibit or a script about astronomy.

Along the same lines as Universe and Visions of the Cosmos, Lars Lindberg Christensen, Robert Hurt, and Robert Fosbury sent along a fascinating book called Hidden Universe. It presents some stunning views of the cosmos through the eyes of Spitzer Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and many other observatories.

My friends Govert Schilling and Lars Lindberg Christensen also came out with a book last year called Eyes on the Skies. It gives you an inside look at the observatories astronomers use around the world. I enjoyed reading it and if you’re fascinated by the technology of astronomy, you’ll like it, too.

What are my latest reads? Recently I picked up a book by astronomer Seth Shostak called Confessions of an Alien Hunter. Seth is active in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and is part of the SETI Institute near San Francisco, California. His book is serious and funny, entertaining and sometimes disconcerting. It’s a unique look at the search for ET and the interesting reactions people have to that search. Seth brings all the greatest qualities of a scientist to the answer to the question, “Are we alone in the Universe?”

Finally, one of my old favorites is Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It was first written in 1980 and accompanies the wonderful TV series of the same name. I probably read Cosmos at least once a year – it always awakens my sense of wonder about the Universe. And, it was the book that spurred me to go back to school to study astronomy.

I wish I had time to list and discuss every book on the subject of astronomy and space science. But, that’s an exploration that you can and should make for yourself. Once you start you’ll be on a journey of pure and wonderful discovery.

If you’d like more information about the books I’ve mentioned here, plus a much more extensive list of armchair astronomy reading material, point your browser to http://www.thespacewriter.com/wp and click on the 365 Days of Astronomy tab.

Happy reading and thanks for listening!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.

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