Scientific American The Amateur Astronomer

Scientific American The Amateur Astronomer

by Scientific American

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Are you an avid sky-watcher? Would you like to observe the changes in the moon's surface? Predict the orbit of a satellite? Record sunspots?

Finally, here is the book you've been waiting for! From the longest-running column in Scientific American's history comes this collection of fascinating projects for the amateur astronomer. Whether you're interested in… See more details below


Are you an avid sky-watcher? Would you like to observe the changes in the moon's surface? Predict the orbit of a satellite? Record sunspots?

Finally, here is the book you've been waiting for! From the longest-running column in Scientific American's history comes this collection of fascinating projects for the amateur astronomer. Whether you're interested in designing your own telescope or determining the chemical composition of faraway stars, this unique book will help you satisfy your passion for the skies. You'll learn how to build and use astronomical tools that will help you better understand and appreciate the solar system, our galaxy, and the cosmos.

Here you'll discover fascinating facts about astronomy along with helpful tips and clear instructions on how to build inexpensive astronomical instruments in home-based workshops using ordinary shop tools. From making a pendulum that detects the earth's rotation, to observing Jupiter with a homemade telescope, to taking picture-perfect images of a comet, these projects will help you go deeper into space than you've ever imagined.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
* An anthology of interest to the backyard astronomer, from America's leading science magazine. "The Amateur Scientist," as Carlson points out in his brief introduction, has run in Scientific American for over 70 years. From the Start, it has been written for the amateur interested in making observations of various celestial phenomena, often with homemade equipment. The collection of articles from those years is updated to reflect the changes both in technology and in society at large (many supply houses and research sources, for example are now most easily found online). Most of the pieces assume considerable dedication to the task at hand: grinding a telescope mirror (a frequent first project for young scientists), while comparatively inexpensive, involves a substantial investment of time to achieve a precision component. Technical and mathematical sophistication is a given here; readers uncomfortable with equations will soon find themselves at sea. But for those who want to do hands-on science, this is a gold mine: it offers several variations on the basic reflecting telescope, as well as tips on taking astronomical photos and designs for an ocular spectroscope. For those who want to explore beyond the visual spectrum, it gives plans for two homemade radio telescopes. The study of artificial satellites (unheard of in the early days of the column) occupies two chapters. Other projects include two novel sundials (one based on a globe of the earth), instruments to stimulate planetary orbits and pointers on observing specific objects (such as the moon or Jupiter). Where relevant (for example, in regard to solar observations) there are ample safety tip. The writing is for the most part clear, although technical terms are necessarily plentiful.

Certainly not for everyone, but for its intended audience this is an indispensable book.
—Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2000

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Scientific American magazine first came off the presses back in 1845. That makes it the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. And "The Amateur Scientist" holds the distinction of being the magazine's longest running column; it traces its pedigree back over 70 years. That surprises most folks. The longest running column in the oldest magazine in the United States isn't dedicated to concerns like sex, or scandal, or style. It's about good ol' Yankee ingenuity. It's devoted to helping everyday people explore their world and giving them a fighting chance to make original discoveries. That fact never ceases to give me hope for our troubled times. And it is my great honor to write "The Amateur Scientist" today.

Over the years, "The Amateur Scientist" has made a real contribution to our world. Many working experimentalists first kindled their interest in science while carrying out a research project described there. And generations of science teachers have relied on the column for exciting projects to challenge even their most gifted students. For all their discoveries, and for helping them spread a passion for science amongst young people, "The Amateur Scientist" deserves at least a little credit.

You might be surprised to learn that despite the column's influence and popularity for more than seven decades, only one anthology of its projects has ever been published. That book, Science Projects for the Amateur Scientist, which was edited by C. L. Stong, went out of print in 1972. Since then, that title has become quite sought-after. A copy in good condition now sells for well over $100, if you can find one at all. Clearly, it's high time some of these classic articles became more accessible to the amateur community.

It's fitting that the first new collection of these articles in book form be devoted to astronomy. Indeed, astronomy owes a great debt to its amateur explorers. Today thousands of dedicated avocational scientists scrutinize the night sky with extremely sophisticated instruments. Every year this largely disorganized rabble makes important discoveries that advance our understanding of the solar system, our galaxy, and even the cosmos. In fact, the amateur community boasts such outstanding scientific talent that some professional astronomers now partner with amateur observers, and the number of these collaborations is growing every year.

I don't believe that any of this would have happened without Scientific American. In 1928, a young astronomer named Albert G. Ingalls launched a new feature in that magazine titled "The Back Yard Astronomer." In the nearly three decades that followed, Ingalls' column changed names several times, ultimately becoming "The Amateur Scientist." During Ingall's tenure his writings (including his landmark Amateur Telescope Making book trilogy) as well as his tireless community-based efforts ignited the public's passion for hands-on astronomy. Today's community of amateur astronomers grew out of his efforts. These early works may fairly be said to be the founding documents of amateur astronomy.

Ingalls retired in 1955 and turned "The Amateur Scientist" over to C. L. Stong, a brilliant electrical engineer whose passion for science ran the gamut from astronomy to zoology. Under Stong's tenure the column expanded into many other fields, but it still kept in touch with its roots in astronomy. Stong published some designs for extremely sophisticated astronomical instruments, including devices to measure the chemical composition of stars, to view solar prominences, and to enhance the resolution of deep sky photography. The professional versions of these instruments are so advanced that today's amateur still cannot afford them. But Stong's expositions made it possible for amateurs to build these instruments inexpensively in home workshops, using ordinary shop tools.

After Stong died in 1976 from lung cancer, Scientific American hired a new columnist named Jearl Walker, a physicist and well-known science writer. Walker wrote many excellent articles, but under his stewardship the column was devoted more to interesting physics of the everyday world than to instrument building. As a result, "The Amateur Scientist" stopped featuring cutting-edge devices for which it had become so well known. This disappointed amateur astronomers in particular, who for two generations had come to rely on Scientific American as a great source of inspiration for their own research. After Walker retired in 1990, the feature drifted without a regular columnist, with articles appearing about every other month. Finally, in 1995, Scientific American gave me the nod to take over the feature, and I have delighted in returning the column's focus to hands-on science. That's why this compendium sports just one article from between 1977 and 1995, but several articles from the last few years.

A lot of the articles you'll find here are therefore old: some first appeared in the 1950's. So selecting and editing this collection turned out to be quite a challenge. You'll find every type of astronomical instrument that has ever appeared in "The Amateur Scientist" described here. Many of the earlier articles have great historical interest for the enlightened technophile. I often chose accessibility over history, and simply updated the text directly. But some articles gave such insights into how our predecessors approached important research problems that I decided to add sidebars. Occasionally I even threw in a brief introduction to set things in perspective. By taking this middle-of-the-road approach, I am quite certain that I have fully satisfied no one. Still, I hope the long-time fans of "The Amateur Scientist" will find this work to be a reasonable compromise between utility and history.

The amateur community owes a debt of gratitude to several people for making this present compendium possible. First, I must thank Diane McGarvey of Scientific American magazine, for being the irresistible force behind this project. Without her tireless efforts, this volume would not have been possible. Also, my darling wife Michelle Tetreault deserves much credit both for assembling the glossary and for the saint-like patience she has shown me while this book was being cobbled together. And lastly to my children Katherine (age two) and Erik (age four months) for teaching me about what really matters in this world and for making me so grateful each day for being a part of it.

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