Resources to learn about astronomy, please!
July 17, 2012 5:03 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend resources (books, websites, iPhone apps, etc.) for learning about astronomy: constellations, stars, dark energy, dark matter, black holes, space exploration, and the solar system.

I took a community college astronomy course a couple years ago and would like to refresh what I learned then (since there was no textbook and I lost the handouts), and even learn a little more. I'd especially love to have a well-written astronomy textbook with good pictures.

In addition to learning the facts, I want to understand how astronomers know what they know. How do they know Jupiter's surface temperature, how gravity works on Venus, what gases are in Uranus's atmosphere, or how many light years away a star is? I do not have any sort of hard science background — I am definitely not opposed to learning about the complex, technical side of astronomy, but I would need a resource that does a good job of explaining the basics before getting technical.

The extent of my current involvement with astronomy is browsing the Hubble Spacecraft photos, and increasingly-frequent use of my StarWalk iPhone app. (** Is Wikipedia typically reliable when it comes to astronomy? When selecting a star/planet/nebulae, the StarWalk brief info section links to the appropriate Wikipedia page for more info.)

What I'd like to learn about:
— The major constellations. I'd like to be able to identify them in the night sky, and know some interesting factoids (history, names of individual stars, etc.). Is there a better resource for this than StarWalk?
— Stars. Interesting factoids as well their classification and composition. I vaguely recall my professor discussing how astronomers can tell what a star is made of by analyzing light wavelengths ...?
— Dark energy, dark matter, and black holes. Is it possible to gain a basic understanding of these without having a science background, and if so, how?
— Space exploration. I saw this thread on space exploration books so I already have some resources in that regard, but feel free to add.
— The solar system. How/when/by whom was each planet was discovered, the composition, potential for life, etc., and similar info on their moon(s).

I'm reluctant to invest in a telescope because I'll be moving to the city this fall, and I think the light pollution there will make regular stargazing difficult.

Feel free to suggest resources for other astronomy-related topics, even if the topic isn't on my list. Thanks in advance!
posted by hypotheticole to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
posted by Wretch729 at 5:11 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: gaah hit post too soon

I would also try searching for a local astronomy club near wherever you live or are moving to. There's lots of these local groups and they will frequently do events where you can use someone else's telescope, which is nice for those of us who aren't hardcore enough to have one ourselves.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:14 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Terence Dickinson's Nightwatch. The author's love for his subject is palpable.
posted by Currer Belfry at 5:16 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Spaceweather is a great site - and you can subscribe and get emails about current images and events like last week's solar storm. Astronomy magazine and Sky & Telescope are both good. Wretch729's suggestion about local clubs is a good one - look for star parties where you can go look through other people's scopes. Depending on what city you're moving to you may have good options through a museum - Chicago's Addler Planetarium and New York's Hayden Planetarium - part of the American Museum - are both great resources.
posted by leslies at 5:25 AM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: For software, there's the professional-grade Xephem (Linux and MacOS X) as well as the more user-friendly Celestia, the latter of which is perfect for conducting telescope-less observations.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:37 AM on July 17, 2012

You're right not to buy a telescope right before moving to a city, but how about good binoculars? You're not going to want to lug a telescope out of the city with you, but with binoculars you might well be able to travel to somewhere with good light conditions semi-regularly.
posted by atrazine at 6:07 AM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: nthing atrazine - please buy yourself some binoculars: 8x50's are the standard astronomy size that you're looking for - larger aperture to let in more starlight and not too aggressive on the magnification side of things (as that would make it difficult to see anything because it would be wobbling).

If you're feeling splurgey, then digitally-stabilised binoculars are, seriously, awesome. The detail that you can see on the moon with the image stabilised is unbelievable, and it's much easier to spot Jupiter's moons too.

This page at Sky & Telescope is always helpful for the week to come. They also have an interactive sky chart that you can play around with (but your StarWalk is, frankly, more useful I think).

However, I've always liked having a simple print out of the month's constellations on one page that I can look at - it helps to place the constellations relative to one another and to get used to the way that star charts work. Here's a place to download this month's star chart: SkyMaps.

Most beginner astronomy books will give you the basic intro to all of the things that you've mentioned. I can't remember the name of the one on my shelf that serves me best for the beginner's guide to everything (solar system, black holes, constellations, observing tips etc) but I will PM you later or post again.

Here are some photos of constellations and some pictures of Messier objects.

posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 6:38 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to learning the facts, I want to understand how astronomers know what they know.

Good question. Here are three book suggestions:

Stars and their Spectra by James Kaler.

The textbook known just as Kutner.

And Carroll & Ostlie, the big orange book.

The Kaler book deals specifically with stars and goes into details that most astronomy undergrads wouldn't cover, but I think it gives a nice perspective of how astronomers actually developed an empirical understanding of how stars work. It's a somewhat easier read than the next two.

The second two are standard intro undergrad textbooks. They both contain significant amounts of physics and at least some calculus. If you want to know how astronomers know what they know, these books will answer that. Kutner is a little disorganized but I think it's a more gentle introduction, while Carroll & Ostlie can be somewhat overwhelming. These books will also not make any effort to impress you with astronomy as a field in the way that a book for non-majors would. There's no discussion of constellations, or who discovered what planet, or other "popular" topics. These books are designed to introduce people to the business of astronomical research, which you may find to be surprisingly far removed from astronomy as a hobby or as you hear about it in the press.
posted by kiltedtaco at 6:43 AM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: I just taught a course with The Cosmic Perspective and found it to be a very good intro-level textbook; I was never a huge fan of Kutner. Kaler, as recommended by kiltedtaco will definitely take your understanding to the next level for stellar astronomy, but I'd start with one of the intro textbooks.

People have already recommended apps for stargazing, but I always found nothing beats an actual, physical planisphere (aka star wheel) for learning the constellations. Find a field, lie down on your back, set the star wheel to the current day and time, and start pattern hunting. Here's the "Cadilac" of star wheels and here's a more modest one (also available for higher latititdes).

Also, to what city are you moving? Often, universities and science museums have public lectures and/or public observing which can be great opportunity to talk to enthusiastic astronomers (e.g. Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Columbia's amazing outreach program in NYC). Also, definitely check out your local amateur astronomy club; they are often super-enthusiastic and super-knowledgeable.
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:37 AM on July 17, 2012

I have, and love using, the Starwalk app.
posted by bibliogrrl at 6:49 PM on July 18, 2012

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the awesome responses!

I will definitely be checking out those links for local astronomy clubs. I'm moving to Boston for school, if it's relevant. I know there's a planetarium there and I think I may have a contact I could use at the Harvard Observatory.

I'm going to look into those astronomy books, maybe see if I can find them in a store and flip through them before I buy any. I have zero knowledge of physics and calculus so my options are relatively limited, but I will keep these on my list.

RonButNotStupid: I downloaded Celestia and I love it. I'm still learning how to use it, but this is some seriously cool software! Thanks!

Betelgeuse: I will be ordering myself the "Cadillac" of star wheels very soon!

Do you guys have any recommendations for particular binocular brands (both regular and digitally stabilized), or will any 8x50's work?
posted by hypotheticole at 6:57 PM on July 19, 2012

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