About two years ago, a member of our astronomy club was helping the widow of another astronomy club member who had passed away. Like many of the survivors of astro lovers, the widow inherited a bunch of astro equipment, digital remnants and a bunch of accumulated reference material. To wit, he had left behind a large collection of issues of Sky & Telescope.
For those of you who don’t immediately know (and why would you?), S&T started publication way back in 1942 and has been going strong ever since. Almost immediately, even during WW II, it moved to 12 issues per year. The late astronomer had every issue, as far as I can tell, from 1966 through to 2017. Quite the collection. And when the helper guy sent out an email asking if anyone wanted them, my initial thought was not “Hell no” but rather “What an interesting project.”
The potential bias of new-found passion
You see, I’m a latecomer to astronomy circles. While I was interested as a kid, I was 45 before I had my first real scope. As such, I am prone to that syndrome common to all late converts, the possible belief that astronomy really started the day we started observing, and that nothing that came before is worth reviewing. Get the basics, start new, and assume that everything you experience “new” is likely genuinely new.
People in religious circles experience it all the time…the newest converts are often the most passionate, assuming they know how to interpret scriptures because they can read and they know how to recruit people to their new passions too.
Many new converts to hobbies suffer the same passion bias…they want the newest book, the newest gadget, the latest technique. But I’ve been down that road in lots of different disciplines and I know that while you might toss the bath water, you make sure you save the baby first.
But here was 50 years of recent astronomy history, doled out in monthly increments. What riches are hidden in those pages? What lessons learned could I glean if I went through them, in relative order, that wouldn’t be apparent just from reading a current issue? How would I know the best way to interpret the current context if I don’t know from whence it evolved?
More pointedly, what is truly “new” and what is merely “old song and dance routines dressed up in new costumes”?
Enter the project idea
I wasn’t 100% sure what the project would be, or what form it would take, but I had some initial inklings. I took them all. No, I didn’t ask my wife, and she has politely refrained from asking me if I am completely f***ing nuts, mostly because she already knows the answer to that. She believes me to be a hoarder, and in some senses, she isn’t wrong. But that is not what this is. I have no desire to hang on to them in perpetuity, they are disposable in my view.
I want to read them, in order, but quite frankly, I know I don’t have the time. What I CAN do is skim read them, noting things that leap out at me as interesting. There will be some obvious big leaps…how do they react to the latest eclipse or comet? How did they respond to a bunch of the space era milestones of the ’60s? And when our first explorer crafts approached the other planets, how did the magazine cover it? All of those are fair game.
But that’s not really what I’m most excited about in my browsing and reading. I’m really looking for things that haven’t changed. Advice, for instance, on getting started. The importance of learning the sky. Maybe some enduring legacy approaches that are interesting to see in context. Is it a planisphere? Is it a moon map? Is it a simple version of our modern day star charts? Is it endless lists of RA and DEC coordinates?
In short, I don’t know. And I wasn’t sure if/when I would ever know. All the magazines came in boxes initially, and then I put them on a storage bookcase, mostly stacked by decade. So, for example, all the 1970s were grouped together and took up two “cubes” in the shelving. But within that decade, nothing was further sorted. It was just all jumbled together. Mostly there were 4-5 issues together that were in order, mainly from where I moved them off their original shelving in the widow’s inherited library, one handful at a time. Then again when I took them out of the boxes. But if I’m going to do this project, I really need them sorted at some point.
Since I was moving them across my basement, and moving the shelving it was all sitting on, now is the time to do a sort and get it “done”. 52 years, 12 issues per year, plus asundry other magazines here and there stuck in, probably another 75 or so…call it 700 issues in total. That is a lot of sorting. Oddly enough though, I have some experience sorting magazines. I did it A LOT back when I worked at the library during my undergrad at Trent. Normally it was alphabetical — A-F, G-M, N-S, T-Z (a 6,7,6,7 split). For this, it was simpler, group by decade first (pretty much already done) and then take a decade at a time, dropping them into years, before then sorting a single year at a time in reverse chron order. I thought it would take a lot longer than it did. I was about 40% of the way through, staring at a large number of remaining issues and thinking I should just stop at that point and dump the rest together without sorting them further.
But I stuck with it and the rest wasn’t that bad, improved partly by the layout of the magazine. For an extended period of time, they produced thicker issues with the month and year on the spine. Much easier to sort than looking for it on the cover where it moved around about 6 times over the 50 years. That would have drove us nuts in the library back in the day when we were trying to do binding because we had to fill out forms that gave details about where certain info could be found on the issues. Annoying if it moved around as it did here. Oddly enough, I found myself thinking a lot today about my time at Trent. Most of the people I worked with are all gone now, and I mean that literally. Most of the permanent staff were all at retirement age when I left 30 years ago, and the ones I was close to have all passed on. I feel a bit of a void from different parts of my life, and that is one. I guess those will increase as time goes on.
Anyway, I digress. As I said, I persevered, and they are all entirely sorted for the years that I have them at least. I can access electronic versions for the missing years, and I’m inclined to go all the way back to the beginning.
My idea, as I said, is not to read every word, there is no time for that and this isn’t an academic research paper going for an in-depth comprehensive consideration of every article. Instead, I’m looking for things that appeal to the new astronomer. Almost paper-based versions of outreach, in a sense. The electronic versions are going to be hard as they are scanned PDFs, and the quality isn’t that great for the original typeset nor the scan itself. But it’s a start.
I’m undecided how much volume my reading will produce…I’ll blog as I go, but I don’t know if I’m talking a short blog for every issue, a blog for every year, or a blog for every five to ten years. All three appeal to me, to be honest. And I’m hoping to include them as articles for our local astronomy club, although again, I don’t want them to be too long yet I also don’t want to be trying to do 10 years of articles in 500 words or something. We’ll see what I get as I go. I will likely start off with a blog for each year, but we’ll see how much that produces. At least I’m semi-organized to start now.
Today I choose to start a long-term astro project, reading all the back issues of Sky & Telescope magazine back to 1942. If I cover a year a month, it’ll take me almost seven years to clear everything out. I’m hoping to get it down to about half that, but we’ll see. Depends on how interesting I find each issue and if I get bogged down anywhere or not.
What are the choices you are making?