Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Starlight Nights

Looks like cloudy/monsoon season is here. So it's time to blog more frequently to distract myself from the frustration of not being able to observe and do sidewalks. :)

The book is Starlight Nights by Leslie C. Peltier. A few weeks ago, while researching more about International Observe the Moon Night I came across the article How to Observe Moon this Saturday by Joe Rao. What caught my attention was the passage quoted by Joe.

"It reminds me of a passage written by Leslie Peltier (1900-1980) in his autobiography, "Starlight Nights" (Sky Publishing, 1965):
"Throughout these nights of discovery and exploration of the moon one question kept recurring to my mind.  Why had I been denied all this until my school years were so nearly spent? Why had it not been made a part of the growing up of every youth? I had been taught the rivers, the seas, the mountains of every continent on earth. I knew the capitals of every state and country in the world.  And all this time, right above me, the 'geography' of a whole new world had been turning, page by nightly page, and no one had opened up the book for me." "

It struck a chord deep inside me. I must get hold of this book and read it. Found one copy of this book in the National Library's Repository Used Book Collection which means you can only borrow it via online reservation only. It can be then be delivered to the nearest library for your collection. I have returned the book yesterday so it should available for loan very soon.

Finally the book arrived.

This is the very first hardcover edition of the book. Brought back lots of fond memories of visiting the library in the 80s when everything was manual. I can still remember the poor librarians manually searching through huge shelves of library cards and pasting due-date paper slips. At that time when I was still a young boy, my library cards are more valuable to me than my identity card. Losing them feels like getting a permanent ban from accessing the Internet in today's context. Reading a book that was published before you are born makes it even more exciting. I wondered how long this book was kept in the Repository and how many people actually knew books there can still be loaned out.

This book is a very interesting read indeed as mentioned by many reviewers in the latest edition available at Amazon. It gives you a glimpse of the amateur astronomy scene back in the early 1900s. Those who have stayed in kampung (malay villages) while growing up can definitely identify with the author's early life in the farms. It is yet another testimony to the fact that dark unpolluted skies will make even a small 2 inch telescope a joy to use for a very long time. Those of you who are into DIY will be impressed by the modifications done by the author to his telescopes to improve the stargazing experience. And there was no Internet back then so one has to rely a lot on his own creativity and engineering abilities.

On page 40, the author wrote, "To me, the least satisfactory way of all to learn the stars would be through the eyes of another. The organized "star-party," or the constellation study groups in which someone points out the various stars and constellations are pleasant social affairs but they make it all so effortless that the lesson seldom sticks. It is like taking a guided tour to see some wonder of nature when one could, just as well, have the incomparably greater thrill of being its discoverer."

I agree with him to a certain extent. I believe both methods of learning the stars are equally valid. As long as the learner enjoys learning through one method over another, it does not really matter which should be the best way to learn. In a typical star party, due to time constraints, it is not possible to teach everyone all the constellations at one session. Only the most interesting one or two could be "taught", which would then inspire the learners to discover the rest on their own. So it's the best of both worlds when it comes to learning about the stars. 

I remembered the first time I ran Stellarium on my computer many years ago and saw the constellation Scorpius on my monitor. When I went to the kitchen and look through my window, I identified it for the first time in the sky and it was extremely exhilarating as I had just discovered Scorpius on my own. A few months ago when my astro buddy Clifford showed me the Summer Triangle in the sky at East Coast Park via a green laser pointer, i.e. "through his eyes", it was still a very exciting moment of me to see the formation for the very first time. During my sidewalk sessions showing Jupiter to the general public, some of them have seen Jupiter in books and magazines but still find their first live view through a telescope very impressive and exhilarating. And a rare few who have not known anything about Jupiter before found the live view an unimpressive boring small yellow ball of light. So, discovering sometime for the very first time without someone to explain to you the context of what you are seeing may be a very unsatisfactory learning experience.

This also reminds me of a good friend who is a brilliant engineer who insist on not reading any material on solving a rubik cube but prefer to solve it himself without any assistance. To many, that is an exercise in frustration. But to him, it was pure fun and joy to discover the possible solutions on his own.

On page 235, there is another thought-provoking paragraph. "I know that someday man will reach the moon but I sincerely hope this will not happen for a long, long time. He has a lot of growing up to do before he will be ready for the moon. When he finally does set sails for a journey into space, may it be a voyage of the Beagle, not the Graf Spee. If man must meet a challenge he can find one here on earth. If he must conquer something let it be himself."

I think going to the moon and coming back is also a way of conquering oneself. Going to the moon and showing the world the stunning earth rise is also a very good way to get human beings to "grow up" faster. The moon trips also inspired a generation of scientists, engineers and dreamers without which there would probably be no International Space Station, Hubble Telescope and plans to set up bases in moon for future space exploration. Sure, there are egos involved, but not everyone involved are doing it for purely egoistical objectives.

After reading the whole book, the most inspiring paragraph to me was still the one about the lack of knowledge about the moon (on page 61). The rest of the paragraph which Joe Rao did not include in the above-mentioned article was even more upsetting and shocking. "This was not a negligence peculiar to those times - it still exists. In later years with other telescopes I was to show the moon to thousands of visitors of all ages and not one knew the name of a single mountain range or crater on the moon!". It is 2010 now. IT STILL EXISTS TODAY!! I look forward to the day when young children will  ask me to show them the Tycho crater and the Apennine mountain range through my telescope.

What is significance of seeing the Moon through the telescope for at least once in your lifetime? Ask the legendary John Dobson. When he saw the moon for the very first time through the telescope, he was utterly mesmerized by it. That one experience alone was all it takes to motivate him to start a huge movement that would inspire thousands upon thousands of amateur astronomers for decades to explore the universe with much more affordable do-it-yourself telescopes.

In conclusion, this is a must-read book for all astronomers. Definitely lived up to the perfect 5-stars customer reviews in Amazon.


  1. Really good article Gary. I will certainly be reading the book.

    Looking into the night sky has influenced and inspired people for ages. Doing just that has ispired me to write short stories for years. Nothing comes close to seeing the stars and planets and knowing how far back they all go - in distance and in time.


  2. Hi Steve. Hope you enjoy reading this book too. Do share with me your thoughts after reading it. By the way, where can I get hold of your short stories?

  3. Hahaha....I really enjoyed your descriptions of how library books were loaned during the 80-90s, really brought back tons of memories. :) And you have wrote very well, I mean your writings. It is an interesting read & intrigued readers to read on. Keep it going......

    1. Thanks! Read a few more good astro observing books since. Not enough time to blog about them yet!