Pop physics/astronomy books to read before stargazing trip
December 17, 2019 7:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm fulfilling a childhood dream to go gaze at the stars in Death Valley on the night after Christmas, when there's a new moon. I'd love to dive back into my old favorite genre of books to prepare myself for the experience. What can you recommend? Non-book recommendations for how to make my trip awesome are also very welcome!

During my teens in the 1990s, I was a pop physics and pop astronomy junkie. I read A Brief History of Time, and then many many others. Some authors I really enjoyed back then were: Hawking, John Gribbin (a bunch of books about the arrow of time? Quantum physics? I think?), Richard Feynman (6 Easy Pieces and 6 Not-so-easy Pieces), Carl Sagan, and honestly I forget the rest. After a while, by the 2000s, I had lost the pop physics bug and moved on. So I am out of touch.

(1) Are these worth re-reading? Or should I stick to more current books?

(2) Speaking of which, what ARE some more current stand-out books in the pop astrophysics genre? Please recommend?

I'd rather not read Feynman again. His tone was insufferable before and I'd love it if I can branch out from reading just white dudes... especially the insufferably misogynistic ones.

(3) And finally, if you have been on a stargazing trip, what made it awesome? Tips? Suggestions?
posted by MiraK to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
For #3, stargazing apps are a gamechanger. I use Sky Map.

You'll also want to know how to put your phone in red filter mode to avoid light pollution, which you can do in the accessibility section.
posted by veery at 7:09 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

#2 Coming of Age in the Milky Way is excellent.

#3 Bring a sleeping pad, a good pillow, and a warm sleeping bag.
posted by gregr at 7:54 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For #1, I think the classics are the classics for a reason. A Brief History of Time is well worth re-reading, I think. I really agree with you about Feynman. He was a brilliant scientist and science educator, but I find him insufferable personally.

For #2, I'd consider Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe (a classic) or the (more recent but still old) The Hidden Reality. Greene is a cosmologist, so those are books about the universe as a whole (i.e. topically covering similar ground to A Brief History of Time). If you're looking for one more focused around observational astronomy, I'd take a look at Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris. On exoplanets, Elizabeth Tasker's book The Planet Factory is reportedly excellent (although I haven't read it yet).

For #3, I would definitely recommend some sort of sky viewing tool. One option is a "star wheel" a.k.a. planisphere (this one is excellent, but sort of comically big; if you want something more compact this one is a little more portable). The other option is an app. The style of app you prefer will dictate a bit which one you prefer. I used SkyView for a while, but found the "mystic" music and weird animations obtrusive. I'm convinced that Stellarium's app is the best one out there for serious sky viewing.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:01 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's neither pop nor contemporary, but if you enjoyed 6 Not-so-easy Pieces, Frank Shu's The Physical Universe might be worth asking the library for. (It's really an introductory academic astro textbook, though one designed for a very broad audience. It won't tell you about specific stars or objects.)

Wesson's "The Light/Dark Universe" is a fun read and gives some big-picture context to the night sky. (Again, it won't tell you about specific stars.)

Bringing some 8x50 (or thereabouts) binoculars and a flask of brandy has worked for me. But, despite having the word astronomy on my business card, I'm not even an amateur stargazer.

(Kumar's Quantum is the best pop-science book I've read in a twenty years. But, it's got very little do do with astronomy except in a very abstract sense. It's less irritating than Feynman, though.)
posted by eotvos at 8:16 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

You'll also want to know how to put your phone in red filter mode to avoid light pollution, which you can do in the accessibility section.

On recent versions of iOS, Settings > Accessibility > Display & Text Size > Color filters. Flip the Color Filters switch on,
select Color Tint, then move the Intensity and Hue sliders all the way to the right.
posted by zamboni at 8:18 AM on December 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Anything by Janna Levin, plus, bonus, John McPhee for the daytime geology. Things that made my death valley star trip A+: a much warmer sleeping bag than I anticipated needing!
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:44 AM on December 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Came in to recommend Janna Levin as well, specifically Black Hole Blues (but only because I haven't read her other stuff which is probably just as great). Black Hole Blues is terrific.
posted by kristi at 8:07 AM on December 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was given Star to Star: Astronomical Dot-to-Dot puzzles which you might enjoy. They include background info about the mythology of the constellations, and some science facts.
posted by paduasoy at 10:02 AM on December 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Everyone, thank you for your suggestions. I borrowed a couple of audiobooks by Brian Greene from my library and listened to it throughout the trip. It was perfect. Everything was perfect. Here's a bunch of pictures, including the one good photo my friend managed to take of the sky at night. It shows an outer arm of the Milky Way, the only part of the galaxy that's visible at this time of the year. I just stood there looking at the sky for an hour, holding infinity in the palm of my hand and eternity in that hour. <3
posted by MiraK at 6:54 AM on January 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

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