Dr. Fred Bortz

Seeing in the Dark:
How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth From Interplanetary Peril

by Timothy Ferris

(Simon and Schuster, 2002, $26.00, 384 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Also by Timothy FerriscoverThe Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report
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In the preface of Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, Timothy Ferris states simply, "This book is about stargazing, which is at once one of the oldest and most ennobling, and one of the newest and most challenging, of human activities."

If it were merely, as Mr. Ferris notes, "an account of some of my experiences as a lifelong stargazer,... a report on the revolution sweeping through amateur astronomy,..." and a fascinating tour of "what's out there," it would fully satisfy readers who picked it up because of the title and the author's reputation.

But the book is much more than that. It is a romance, not a private one, but one that flourishes only when shared, the story of "encounters involving ... the inconceivably remote and the deeply intimate." Discover my beloved with me, Mr. Ferris seems to say, in prose that at times has an almost erotic power.

The book begins at "The Shore" with early events that shaped the author's life, including a Christmas gift of a first telescope, "suitably wretched" but sufficient to see the features of Mars. It also introduces a recurring theme, the shared goals and natural antagonisms of amateur and professional astronomers.

Then, heading into "Blue Water," the book takes readers on a tour of the Solar System, outbound from the realm of the Sun, with stops at each planet through Neptune, the Moon, the asteroid belt, Pluto and the icy Kuiper belt objects, and Oort cloud of comets.

Continuing into "The Depths," readers discover the Milky Way and other galaxies, galactic clusters, and nebulas with revealing structures. Looking deeper into space and further back in time, stargazers see the intensely bright light of long-vanished galactic predecessors, known as quasars -- and then darkness at the limit of the observable universe.

There Mr. Ferris finds revelation, life and death: "[W]hen darkness is falling for good, it is well to have in mind, in addition to memories of human love and loss and of the natural splendors of this world ... a few memories of other worlds as well ... plasma arches rising off the edge of the Sun, yellow dust storms raging on Mars, angry red Io emerging from the shadow of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the green dot of Uranus and the blue dot of Neptune, the glittering star fields of Sagittarius and the delicate tendrils connecting interacting galaxies ...."

That would be a suitable ending, but for readers newly turned on to stargazing, Mr. Ferris adds six useful appendixes to start them along the path that has provided him a lifetime of riches.

Whether sitting in the chilly darkness of a backyard observatory or in the warmth of a well-lit room, with this book and its author as guide, readers will experience the passionate quest to discover one person's time and place in the Universe.

Physicist Fred Bortz's books for young readers include Collision Course! Cosmic Impacts and Life on Earth.