Scientific American The Amateur Astronomer

Scientific American The Amateur Astronomer

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Scientific American The Amateur Astronomer by Shawn Carlson, Amer Scientific Amer

From the longest running column in Scientific American's history comes this collection of fascinating projects for amateur astronomers
For over seventy years, "The Amateur Scientist" column in Scientific American has helped people explore their world and make original discoveries. This collection of both classic and recent articles presents projects for amateur astronomers at all levels. Hands-on astronomy fans will find how to build inexpensive astronomical instruments using ordinary shop-tools. From making a telescope to predicting satellite orbits to detecting the chemical composition of faraway stars, this book has something for everyone interested in practical astronomy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780471382829
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 12/19/2000
Series: Scientific American Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine reaches more than three million readers globally by subscription, on newsstands, and online at The company also publishes Scientific American Explorations, a quarterly family magazine, and Scientific American Archive, an online archive of issues from 1993 to the present at SHAWN CARLSON has authored Scientific American's "The Amateur Scientist" column since 1995. He is the Executive Director of the Society for Amateur Scientists and a 1999 winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" Fellowship.

Read an Excerpt


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.

Table of Contents




A Simple Telescope for Beginners.

How to Grind, Polish and Test an Aluminum Telescope Mirror.

The Behavior of the Telescope-maker's Pitch.

The Dall-Kirkham Telescope.

Principles of Erecting Telescopes.

Powerful Pocket Telescopes.

A Novel Refracting Telescope.

"Off-Axis" Reflecting Telescopes.

Steady Telescope Mountings.

Two Amateur-Built Radio Telescopes.


How to Observe and Record Sunspots Safely.

Sun of a Gun.

A Coronagraph to View Solar Prominences.

Two Spectroheliographs for Observe the Solar Disk.


A Pendulum That Detects the Earth's Rotation.

Observing Changes on the Moon.

Curious Amateur Observations of the Moon.

A Pauper's Guide to Measuring Latitude.

Precision Geolocation Using Lunar Occultation.

Sundial Potpourri.

How to Study Artificial Satellites.

Predicting Satellite Orbits.


Amateur Observations of Jupiter.

Predicting Planetary Alignments.

Catch a Comet by Its Tail.

A Picture-Perfect Comet.

A Device to Simulate Planetary Orbits.

An Astrophysical Laboratory in Your Backyard.

An Ocular Spectroscope.

Monitoring Variable Stars.


Further Reading.

Contact List.


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