February 7, 2023
In his new book The Sky at Night avid stargazer and astronomy columnist Tim Hunter covers all the basics—from the Moon, planets, and stars to the history and origins of constellations and selected famous astronomers and events. The book emphasizes naked-eye viewing with an occasional reference to using a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Hunter encourages beginners to explore the skies while giving them a solid understanding of what they see. Building on his writings for the long-running Sky Spy column, Hunter defines and outlines astronomical terms and how they relate to locating objects in the sky. He weaves in his personal experiences of what he learned about astronomy as a columnist for more than a decade, detailing his mistakes and triumphs to help other would-be astronomers excel in this heavenly hobby. Today, he answers our questions.
What inspired you to write this book?
I am an avid amateur astronomer whose hobby has run amok. I have always wanted to do an astronomy book but never had good idea or subject matter for such a book until I started writing the weekly “Sky Spy” column for the Arizona Daily Star. I have written three academic radiology books and was familiar with putting together a book. After writing Sky Spy columns for ten years, I realized the material in the columns would be ideal for a book on easy observing of the night sky.
You’ve been a columnist about astronomy for more than a decade. What were the challenges in turning your column into a book?
When I began thinking about turning my columns into a book, I had more than 750 weekly columns that had been published. There are many books where authors have combined their weekly or monthly columns into a book. A lot of these are simply thrown together and renamed as a book without any major editing or condensation of the material. My columns ranged from 250 to 300 words, frequently covering the same topic from year to year like the equinoxes or the solstices. The columns were often Tucson or Arizona centric and very often date specific describing an astronomical event.
If the book were to have any worth, it could not just be columns thrown together and called a book. There had to be a consistent whole and most Tucson and Arizona centric material had to be removed as well as most of the date specific material.
Having to explain a concept to someone else means you must understand it as well. I have often been chagrined to discover how little I knew about an astronomical topic when I first sat down to write a column about it. When I finally got done with the column, the column might not be any good, but I sure learned a lot.
I picked important points from the columns and collated them, I hope, into an intelligible whole to be enjoyed by the reader. I describe what I learned about astronomy and about being a columnist over the years. I tell about my mistakes and occasional triumphs, advising other would-be astronomy columnists what to emphasize and what to avoid. This book really is “the adventures of a sometimes astronomy columnist.”
Much of the best material for the Sky Spy columns has come from its readers through questions or complaints. Constant reader feedback is essential for keeping a column fresh and relevant.
Traditional newspaper columns are fading from public view due to the challenges facing print media in today’s digital world. Even so, a blog or digital column needs as much input as possible from interested persons, readers and editors. The sky is a wonderful draw. It interests everyone in some fashion. Put a telescope on a busy corner in the heart of a metropolis. You will draw a crowd no matter the light pollution or surrounding urban chaos. It is hard to beat the glory of Saturn’s rings or the craters on the Moon in a small telescope. The summer Milky Way overhead on a clear night at a dark sky site rivals any digital trick available to the modern movie industry. A total eclipse of the Sun is such a stunning experience that it has no serious rival in nature.
What first brought you to astronomy?
I have been an amateur astronomer since 1950 when Miss Wilmore my first-grade teacher showed me a book of the constellations. I was fascinated by a drawing of Cygnus the Swan and wondered whether I could ever see that in the sky. That book has been published in the 1920s and did not list Pluto. When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, Pluto was a planet. Today, Pluto is now longer a planet, but that is a story for another time. It turns out the book I though was outdated when I was in first grade is now back in style.
You advocate naked-eye viewing, and your book discusses objects easily viewed this way. Why do you like this approach?
The sky is wonderful. It is to be enjoyed day and night with easy viewing of the night sky the focus of the book. All one has to do is step outside and look up. I assume the reader is literate and interested in the sky but not particularly knowledgeable. It assumes one is not familiar with most of the constellations, but it is hoped the descriptions provided and the directions given are good enough to find one’s way around the sky.
There are many things you can easily see from your backyard even if you live in the city: the Moon, the planets, bright stars, bright satellites, the Earth’s shadow, conjunctions of the planets and Moon, eclipses, and bright constellation. At a darker suburban location, you can even see a few star clusters and at least one galaxy with your naked eye. If you add a good pair of easily held binoculars, you extend your viewing many times further.
I will have succeeded if you enjoy the sky as much as I do and make friends with the Moon, planets, and stars.
What are you working on now?
I have an observatory in my front yard in Tucson, the 3towers Observatory, and an observatory out of town near Sonoita, Arizona, the Grasslands Observatory (see: http://www.grasslandsobservatory.com ). The Grasslands Observatory sits on a high 5000-foot altitude grasslands between distant mountains in all directions. It has three telescopes that can be controlled remotely from Tucson and are used for astrophotography projects. An ongoing project is to image all the 370 Barnard Objects in color. These are regions of dark nebulosity which were first described and photographed in black and white more than 100 years ago by the famous astronomer E. E. Barnard (1857-1923).
Tim B. Hunter, MD, MSc, is a professor emeritus in the Department of Medical Imaging at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and has been the author of the Sky Spy column in the Arizona Daily Star for more than fifteen years. He is a co-founder of the International Dark-Sky Association and has received multiple awards for his work addressing light pollution.