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A couple of astronomy book recommendations with a comet theme

It’s a miserable grey and slightly cold day at the Sunnymeade observatory with heavy rain drumming down – perfect weather for reading a good book! With the stunning Comet C/2009 P1 Garradd now high in our northern hemisphere night skies, displaying a distinct tail in images of just 10 minutes exposure, I thought it was time for a couple of relevant book recommendations for the autumn nights ahead.

First up is the new novel by Christina Koning Variable Stars (Arbuthnot Books, May 2011, 402 pages. ISBN-10: 0956521444). This is a fine piece of historical fiction centred on the lives of three astronomers of the Georgian period; Caroline Herschel, her brother William Herschel and their friend Edward Piggott.  The storyline focusses primarily on Caroline Herschel as she moves between Hanover, Bath, Windsor and Brussels in the shadow of her more famous brother. This is essentially a classic Georgian tale of unrequited love involving Caroline, Edward Piggott and his cousin John Goodricke,  but at the same time a thrilling account of scientific discovery as new objects are observed and located for the first time amongst the familiar constellations.  The restrictive social circles in which the Herschel’s move are perfectly portrayed as are the missed opportunities and fleeting fame of some of the characters who burn brightly then fade into the background (hence the metaphor in the title Variable Stars). Many other famous contemporaries appear in carefully crafted cameos including Dr Johnson, Farinelli and Fanny Burney and it is clear that a great deal of research into the period and lives of these people supports the narrative framework. This novel is certainly aimed at the female reader in terms of the romantic content, but there is plenty here for every gender and particularly if you have an interest in historical astronomy.

Secondly, we have Martin Mobberley’s new book in the Springer Practical Astronomy Series Hunting and Imaging Comets (Springer Publishing, October 2010, 408 pages, ISBN-10: 1441969047). The Springer publications can vary wildly in their usefulness and accuracy of information. A number of them have been frankly appalling with factual inaccuracies, badly reproduced images and overly repetitive introductions and body text. Thankfully none of these criticisms can be levelled at Martin Mobberley’s accessible volume which covers an area of amateur astronomy that is surprisingly under represented.

Martin is well-known to amateur astronomer’s for his monthly articles in Astronomy Now magazine and appearances on the BBC TV programme The Sky at Night. He images comets regularly from his home observatory in Suffolk.

The fifteen chapters in the book cover the basics about comets, the history of their discovery, professional and amateur comet hunting, comet hunting and imaging techniques and a delightful biographical chapter at the end of some of the world’s most prolific comet imagers. The text is easy to read, engaging, enthusing and by the end you just want to rush out under the stars with your equipment and start finding those comets! Martin has a very relaxed and chatty approach to writing and this makes the volume all the more successful as it eschews the dry fact-laden approach of so many books on astronomy at this level. The images throughout are well reproduced, particularly the well-chosen colour photos, and I think the image of comet 17P Holmes by Michael Jager on page 245 must be pretty much the most amazing comet image I have ever seen. The appendices list a lot of useful web and literary resources for further research, or the procurement of the necessary equipment and software for comet observation and imaging. Information in the book seems to be very up to date with the latest entries on comet discoveries dating to late 2009.

This is currently the most comprehensive volume on the subject for the amateur astronomer and if you have an interest in comet observation or imaging then I highly recommend you get a copy of this book. It will become an essential and much read part of your library.

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