How We See the Sky: A Naked-eye Tour of Day & Night

December 22, 2011

In a book that considers the appearance of the heavens from the point of view of naked-eye observations on the Earth's surface, Thomas Hockey writes about the practical astronomy that anyone can do without using a telescope - and, of course, that is how astronomy was done throughout most of human history. His goal is to explain phenomena from a modern point of view, and to provide a cultural and historical setting.

The main themes holding the narrative together are clear explanations of a multitude of phenomena in the astronomical sky, and the way we describe and explain those phenomena. The first chapter sets the scene by describing the "bowl" of the night sky, which is how the ancients tried to make sense of the heavens and the motions of the planets. This leads into a description of coordinate systems and the celestial sphere.

With this introductory material the reader is well placed to understand phenomena associated with the apparent motion of the stars: the Earth is a rotating world spinning on an inclined wobbly axis, the consequences of which are the precession of the equinoxes, seasons, solstices and more. Three chapters artfully explain the complicated apparent motions of the Sun and the Moon, which have all kinds of practical implications for calendars and time-keeping.

Cultural aspects of sky-watching are well covered, too, with concise accounts of megalithic astronomy and its sites, notably Stonehenge, and the passage grave at Newgrange in the Republic of Ireland, which is aligned to sunset at the winter solstice. The alignments at neolithic sites appear to mark the annual cycle of the Sun in a symbolic way, capturing the moment of death and resurrection of the Sun. That's how Hockey colourfully imagines the purpose of these sites, and it's the story rolled out to tourists. Scholars may be sceptical.

In order to review this book I conducted the following thought experiment. I give popular lectures on astronomy on cruise liners, so I recalled some of the questions I have been asked in the queue for the buffet or the cocktail bar. For example: what's a blue Moon? Why does the Moon look big when it is close to the horizon? Why are there leap years? Those questions are answered here, and thus I would happily put this book on a reading list for newcomers to elementary astronomy who are curious to know more about the night sky.

In his preface, the author explains that he restricts the account to purely astronomical phenomena, and he therefore rejects those sky phenomena that arise because we view the heavens through an atmosphere. This is a mistake. When we look towards the Sun we may be able to see a parhelion (sun dog), or a circumzenithal arc (an upside-down rainbow), as well as rainbows and halos, and the green flash at sunset. The Moon in winter may have a halo.

I would also have welcomed more extensive coverage of meteors and comets, as well as solar eclipses. Despite these limitations, this is an easy introduction to astronomy from your back yard.

How We See the Sky: A Naked-eye Tour of Day & Night

By Thomas Hockey. University of Chicago Press. 224pp, £39.00 and £13.99. ISBN 9780226345765 and 5772. Published 7 October 2011

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study