Twinkle Twinkle little present?
November 27, 2009 7:14 AM   Subscribe

Burgeoning Astronomer-filter: My husband is getting interested in the cosmos and theoretical physics. Any neat gift ideas to encourage this? I've googled the interweb but don't know where to start.
posted by jennyhead to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, a telescope is the obvious thing. How much do you want to spend? Do you live somewhere with a lot of light pollution?
posted by delmoi at 7:30 AM on November 27, 2009

He's looked at telescopes before, and decided that the one he would want is several thousand dollars. So that one's out for the moment.
posted by jennyhead at 7:32 AM on November 27, 2009

Audit an astronomy class at a local university? My daughter, who has never exactly been interested in the night sky, took an astronomy class this semester to fulfill her science requirement and has, thus far, truly enjoyed it and has learned quite a bit.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:40 AM on November 27, 2009

This book may be out of date (it was first published in 1994) but I read it when I was in high school and found it very accessible.

It's written at the level of "educated layman" so it may be too elementary for your husband, depending on his academic/professional background.
posted by dfriedman at 7:42 AM on November 27, 2009

Here's the Amazon link for the book I mention above.
posted by dfriedman at 7:43 AM on November 27, 2009

A membership to the local planetarium might be a good idea - closest you'll get to a several-thousand-dollar telescope for a while, anyway.
posted by misskaz at 7:45 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

For someone interested in the ideas of astrophyics the best book I can reccommend is Frank Shu's The Physical Universe - accessible to even the layman but takes you in as deep as you want to go as well. Its an old book (1982) but as you can read in the Amazon reviews, people still adore it. I treasure my worn copy and still refer back to it from time to time.

Note: A telescope is not "obvious" for someone interested in astrophysics. I studied astrophysics and, after telling people, would inevitably be asked me some question about constellations or whether that bright dot up there was Mars. I have no idea. But I could sketch out for you the carbon cycle of stellar nucleosynthesis or how to derive the Chandrasekhar limit.
posted by vacapinta at 7:49 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just finished teaching Einstein's Relativity: The Special and General Theory as part of a freshman studies class (i.e., well outside my area of expertise). I assume he'll be reading *about* general relativity if he's interested in theoretical physics, so it's worth starting with the source. Parts II and III are particularly tough to get through, but well worth the effort.
posted by brozek at 8:18 AM on November 27, 2009

Has he considered building his own telescope? It's about as hands-on and technical as you can get at the amateur level, and maybe he'll be more willing to use a non-top-of-the-line telescope if he built it himself. Stellafane are the folks that know amateur telescope building and mirror grinding the best, so I'd go with any of their recommended books.

If he just wants some observing time, something like a night at Kitt Peak's Nightly Observing Program might be fun. It's a major professional observatory outside of Tucson, AZ, and it may or may not be feasible depending on where you are. Unfortunately for visitors, almost all the major observatories are in the American southwest (or Chile or Hawaii).

Regarding the Shu recommendation, I'll add a caveat: if he's interested in cosmology, don't buy Shu. It's really out of date on any sort of cosmology or galaxy formation topics. But it's still a good book for stars/stellar physics. I could recommend more books, but it would be useful to know more precisely what he's interested in and what level he's looking for (e.g. all the technical books will require calculus, so knowing whether that's OK or not makes a big difference).
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:31 AM on November 27, 2009

What is "the cosmos" in this context? Do you mean cosmology or stargazing? If this leans toward astronomy a bit, you should definitely get Nightwatch... it's a very intelligent guide to intermediate-advanced amateur astronomy. During my years of astronomy it was one of my favorite books.
posted by crapmatic at 8:31 AM on November 27, 2009

It's not exactly a gift, but has he played around with Celestia yet?
posted by matty at 9:17 AM on November 27, 2009

Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I'd be willing to bet it's what got half of the people replying here interested in the first place.
posted by cmoj at 9:50 AM on November 27, 2009

He's looked at telescopes before, and decided that the one he would want is several thousand dollars.

They always are, it seems. When I was a kid, the Meade 8" Schmidt-Cassegrains cost about two grand. Twenty years later, and they're still about two grand. It's really annoying.

Also, while you can grind your own mirrors, keep in mind:
  1. It's a royal pain in the ass
  2. The results simply won't compare to commercially-ground glass
  3. You still have to get the mirrors coated, which will cut into any differential savings from buying glass blanks
I'd recommend getting a quality Dobsonian like this 10" from Meade for about $500.

Note: If he ever plans on doing astrophotography, a Dobs-mount will be much more restricting, though they do have stepper motor conversion kits available online.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:54 AM on November 27, 2009

My favorite astronomy book is The Illustrated Atlas of the Universe by Mark Garlick, which I found, in the hardcover edition, on a discard shelf at a bookstore for $20. It has hundreds of pages of beautiful illustrations and explanatory text.
posted by megatherium at 9:57 AM on November 27, 2009

Two books -

"Dancing Wu Li Masters:" An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav

"The Elegant Universe:" Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene

Accessible but with lots of room to grow.
posted by leafwoman at 10:36 AM on November 27, 2009

I am with Misskaz. A membership to a local planetarium would be cool .A lot of them need the members and the planetarium by me atleast has a huge telescope that they let people come down and use at night.

The one by me has some cool laser light shows set to pink floyd and led zepplin also.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:52 AM on November 27, 2009

You are right to leave him to out pick which telescope he wants. Just as a bit of side advice to him, I wouldn't recommend saving up for a big, expensive telescope if it's his first one. He might find it too cumbersome to haul around and they take a long time to cool down.

The Realm of the Universe is the best astronomy book I ever read.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:57 AM on November 27, 2009

I don't know where you live, but you might want to look at getting him a membership to your local astronomy club. Mine has a fully-equipped observatory at a relatively dark sky site available for use by the membership.
posted by deadmessenger at 11:04 AM on November 27, 2009

I'm an astronomer. I get the impression that your husband is more interested in the theory than the observation, in which case I would recommend Our Cosmic Habitat by Martin Rees, which is beautifully written, goes easy on the bong-hit gee whizz bullshit you see in a lot of popular science, and is up to date. Depending on his tastes, a subscription to, e.g. Scientific American, New Scientist, Astronomy, etc. might work.

Like most astronomers, I don't actually know that much about hobbyist telescopes. I can tell you which way the sky is (it's up). But I'm always told that the place to start with observing is with a pair of binoculars, rather than a telescope. You get much more bang for your buck with binoculars rather than telescopes if you're spending in the low hundreds.

If you're looking for something a bit less improving but a bit more beautiful, you could do a lot worse than get him a laser-etched, scientifically accurate paperweight of Saturn, the Sun, the Milky Way or, uh, the Universe.
posted by caek at 11:42 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Dancing Wu Li Masters:" An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav

Do not get this book for someone interested in theoretical physics.
posted by atrazine at 12:17 PM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Uk's Open University runs distance learning astronomy courses, this always seems to sound like correspondence courses to Amercians but in the UK they're highly thought of and their teaching is assessed regularly within the Uk's national audit process and tends to score highly. Their astronomy dept is also well thought of in research circles. Bascially they offer a high quality course.

You will have to decide for yourslef whether your husband would respond well to formal learning, some people really like it as a structured way to develop knowledge, some people see it as poison in relation to hobbies.
posted by biffa at 12:46 PM on November 27, 2009

By far the best way to start out (telescope-wise) is NOT with a multi-thousand dollar complicated (and probably large/bulky) gadget.

Start out with something like astronomy-quality binoculars (not the largest/most expensive, either--maybe something like this for starters) or a small & inexpensive (but well-made) scope--something like this or maybe one of these.

If you enjoy exploring the night sky with this, you'll enjoy it with a multi-thousand dollar scope as well. And if you don't enjoy it with the small/cheap setup, you won't enjoy the expensive one either.

And what's more, if and when he gets a more expensive telescope, the smaller scopes and/or binoculars are still a complement to that rather than a replacement. "The best telescope is the one you actually use" and it turns out that the small/simple scope that you can just carry out back and plop on the patio table for a quick look at Jupiter or Saturn, often gets 100X the use of the very fine but complicated and bulky outfit that takes three trips from the garage to set up (and another three back to the garage to put away).

I wouldn't buy a telescope or binoculars for someone else without talking with him or her first. But you might talk with him about this idea--a $200 telescope you actually have and use is worth way more than the $20,000 unit that's only in a catalog . . .
posted by flug at 3:33 PM on November 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another thought (more telescope than "theoretical physics" oriented) is star charts or guides to the night sky like this or this or (even better) a subscription to a magazine like Sky & Telescope.

Each issue of S&T covers notable recent discoveries & research (ie, roundups of the latest from various space exploration missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, etc, besides latest research on dark matter, dark energy, cosmology, etc.), pretty decent articles about various astronomy-related topics, and then of course hands-on info & reviews about telescopes, the current night sky, and related topics.

One of the few magazines I can stand to read month after month . . .
posted by flug at 3:53 PM on November 27, 2009

How about a big bang or powers of ten poster from Fermilab?
posted by Joleta at 7:34 PM on November 27, 2009

I'll heartily second Frank Shu's The Physical Universe. Some really good smaller scale material that will entertain a budding astrophysicist are books by John Gribbin such as The Birth of Time or Stardust. Also, it's hard to go wrong with Feynman.
posted by neuron at 8:46 PM on November 27, 2009

A Celestron Sky Scout
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:14 PM on November 27, 2009

Something from The Particle Zoo?
posted by Joleta at 9:28 AM on December 3, 2009

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