Plot or Premise
The RASC Observer’s Handbook is the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s annual guide to help amateur astronomers with their hobby for the coming year. James Edgar is the editor of the annual edition. In the interest of full disclosure for my review, I am an active member of RASC Canada and have interacted with the editor online infrequently over the last few years.
The guide is an obvious challenge to produce, as the level of the observers who buy it varies so widely. You have newbies who may not even have a telescope yet, but who might get it for Christmas as a gift. If so, they may find it a bit technical. Dry even. It is heavy on info and light on pictures, all black and white except for the gorgeous cover. You have a knowledgeable moderate astronomer who already knows how to do most things and wants lists or tables, a reference guide, and perhaps a few special topics to learn about new aspects. And then there are the hard-core astronomers who could likely write a technical manual on optics, wavelengths, gaseous anomalies, or a whole host of other aspects of space. Some of them want REALLY technical specs on things, and scientific discussions of some of the topics, way beyond the average user.
The handbook is divided into 13 sections and the main interest for me in the review is if the newbie to a moderate user can find useful stuff quickly and easily, and in digestible chunks.
All three groups may benefit from the Introduction (pp 1-18) which lists observatories around the world, major star parties, and planetariums. There is also a list of internet resources, although I haven’t found the list as helpful as it once was…I would prefer a more curated list that suggests site A or B with details on what you can find there. However, the major bonus in the intro is the section on “Teaching and the Observer’s Handbook” by Lauri Roche who heads up the national outreach committee. While the article is aimed at teachers, a newbie looking to learn could follow the same advice and order suggested.
The next section is entitled Basic Data (pp 19-38). It’s a good start but the newbie is likely to be turned off by coordinate symbols and terminology, or astronomical precession, but gravitate towards handy sky measures (diagrams that tell you how to hold your hand out in front of you to measure sky distances in degrees — such as your full fist from pinkie knuckle to thumb knuckle at the side being about 10 degrees). The next part of the chapter deals with elements of the solar system, and nothing screams “read me!” like the title “Heliocentric Osculating Orbital Elements for 2023 referred to the Mean Ecliptic and Equinox of J2000.0”. If you accidentally find yourself in an introductory high-school or university physics class test, and you need a cheat sheet for measures and formulas, pp 29-32 have you all set up.
Do you have Time (pp 39-48) for the next section? Of course, you do. Personally? I don’t. It is dense and technical and while there is some good stuff in there, the average astronomer needs to know about 2% of it. Maybe. They’d benefit from knowing it all, sure. We all would. On the other hand, if it isn’t your jam, it WILL serve you quite well as an insomnia cure.
The next section on Optics and Observing (pp 49-93) is probably one of the most important topics for people to understand early. It goes through telescope parameters, exit pupils, magnification, dimming effects, night vision, and eyeglasses, all of which basically tell you how well you are going to be able to see something. Every year, I review the sections to see if it is any clearer, no pun intended, and I feel like the eyeglasses section seems to be presented a bit more simply than in past years. Does the average person need all that info or will they use it? Not unless it turns their crank. I’m personally more interested in what it all means, or how you can adjust for some of it. The average user with no particular eye issues, they tend to be right in the middle of the pack with no discernible problem. For those at either end of the spectrum — near-sighted or far-sighted — they probably need a simple paragraph to tell them what to do. Personally, I’d like some discussion of outreach and what to do when the masses come to look through the scope. Applied optical issues, if you will.
There’s the default required article on binoculars. I confess I am not a big fan of binoculars as beginner observer instruments. I love the theory, but in practice, I see a lot of people struggle to hold them steady and to coordinate what they are seeing in a way that is enjoyable. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people hand binos to kids and expect them to suddenly “see the sky” in all its wonder. Instead, most of the time, they say nice things, and most of them are lying their butts off. They can’t see anything, and most of them can’t even get it to focus let alone hold it still long enough to point in a specific area. And if they have any eye issues? Fuhgeddaboutit. I much prefer to give newbies a scope trained on a specific object and the only thing they have to do is look and adjust the focus for their eyes. However, one failing that I find with a lot of information out there about binos are the models discussed. Some of them start at $500 and go up to $2000 as if everyone can afford that price point. That’s not a starter price for newbies, that’s a price that tells them they can’t afford the hobby. Some of the info in the section is out of date, referencing articles from 1998 and 2000 without any obvious realization that the market has changed dramatically. Alan Dyer wrote an article for Sky News in the summer of 2020 that goes through and rates a bunch of big-name entry-level ones that are available at different price points up to $300. It is a far superior article and goes through all of the issues in much more accessible terms.
By contrast, the articles on filters, limiting magnitudes, hints for observing Deep Sky objects, and keeping a logbook are quite excellent. Yet then I hit the ones about weather forecasting for astronomy. The big sources are listed, sure, but there is literally nothing about apps to use. 90% of people under the age of 40 would go to an app before they would go to a website URL and no mention of other ways to get the same information. When I get to the last piece — a primer on astrophotography — I was fully expecting a faint reference to anything involving a smartphone. I was pleasantly surprised to see it updated considerably. It’s a bit basic for its advice, and maybe undersells what you can do, but it is far better than most advice on AP out there that treats smartphones as barely able to do anything more than an Etch-A-Sketch could do.
The next section is the money shot for the handbook — The Sky Month by Month (pp 94-121). If you want to know anything about any of the objects in our solar system for the coming year, this will have it for each month. But this is where it gets a little fuzzy for the handbook. It covers what’s happening in the solar system, which is great for everyone, as the book is sold worldwide. Yet that strength may also be a small weakness.
If I’m observing, I would really like to know month by month about everything that is happening that month, not just the solar system objects. I want to know about major constellations or Messier objects that are well-positioned for viewing that month. That wouldn’t work everywhere in the world, though, so it isn’t included. I feel a little silly quibbling about its absence, but I don’t want another list somewhere else, I want an integrated one.
What can I do? I can cross-reference other sections, or other guides, with this list and make my own. Except the Handbook isn’t available in an e-format, as the risk of piracy cannibalizing sales is way too high to allow it to be shared electronically given that it is a major source of revenue for the Society. If I could buy an e-version, I absolutely would, and copy and paste the relevant sections with other guides into a monthly guide for my neck of the woods.
There is a long section on Eclipses (pp 122-147) and as much as I love the premise, it seems like a lot of real estate for four eclipses where generally all you need to know is WHEN they are and WHERE they are. There’s a bunch of extra technical info in there, but for the average user, likely way overkill. Lots of online websites could scratch an itch for that level of detail.
In every handbook, I am happy to see the Moon (pp 148-179) having detailed coverage. Too often in my view, guides jump to the planets immediately and overlook the majesty of our moon. My only quibble is the extra real estate spent on lunar occultations. This is where the moon passes in front of a star. Uh-huh. It does that all the time. A solar eclipse isn’t exciting because the moon blocked a star, it’s because it blocks OUR star, Sol. I don’t get the excitement around occultations at all. Planets, maybe. One star in the sky? Not so much. Personally? I’d love a quick overview of what is good to see on each day of the moon’s cycles. This rille or that crater, for example. It would be rather static, but we have observer programs for the moon with almost none of the content from it livening up the section in the handbook to spark some passion.
The Sun rises for the next section (pp 180-206). I find it amusing that the section takes up less space than the moon, although I have no idea why I would think it should be longer. Most of us can’t view the sun without additional tools, some users can find it static and boring, and well, many of us are night owls. I do find it interesting that there are details on the ephemeris for the sun, yet no info on it for the moon (the point on the horizon at which either one rises or sets, totally dependent on your PoV and location — but incredibly useful for knowing where to aim your camera or scope before they rise, and to position yourself accordingly so that there isn’t a tree blocking your view!). There are some really good apps to tell you both.
Planets and satellites [pp 207-236] show up in the next section, followed by Dwarf and Minor Planets (pp 237-251), and Meteors, comets and dust (pp 252-269]. The sections are nothing spectacular, but decent reference materials about what to expect to see or plan to see for each of the areas, and some tables to help with planning. The big items that I think are useful are the cross-references on the planets to which month is good for viewing and similar details for comets.
The next section on Stars (pp 270-304) is one where I really want an e-version that I can copy and paste and edit. Some of the lists are available on the website, which is helpful, but it is a weakness of the paper format in some respects. Or if I can’t have the eversion, give me an app version that I can click on and filter the list differently.
If I had my true preferences, I’d love to see a Sky at Night portal built into RASC that if you’ve bought the handbook, or become a member, you get a login and password that would let you go to the site, put in a date range, and it would dump out the info on month-by-month, planets, the sun and moon, and stars, with multiple filter options. I have the guide, but I find myself using online tools far more than the paper book.
And then we come to the last section about Deep Sky Objects (pp 305-346). I whined and moaned about some of the other sections being too technical, too dry, and not enough kindling to ignite passions, and then we get some gems in the last section. Info on certificate programs, clusters, the Messier catalogue with seasonal listings, Alan Dyer’s guide to the finest NGC objects, challenge objects, wide-field wonders, and bright galaxies, not just ANY galaxy. Lists and mini-observing challenges. Practically a “build-your-own” observing schedule for the year. And they have added Kemble’s Fifty-To-The-Pole Program that I had never heard of before this year.
It is exactly this kind of guided approach to a section that some of the other sections would benefit from, in spades at times. Many of the technical sections are feeling tired and worn, and in a need of a refresh as to who the intended audience is for the guide. If we go back to the top of the book review, we’re back to that basic challenge — each reader has their own capacity and the range for the Observer’s Handbook each year is huge. They literally can’t please everyone. I feel like this year’s version is less technical, but still not enough of an outreach / learning lens applied to it. Then again, it is meant to be a reference manual. A handbook, not a tutorial.
The Bottom Line
A solid annual guide, although some sections are feeling a bit dated