Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

February 27, 2004

Although not a standard textbook, The Observer's Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore did more to set me on a career path in science than any number of standard-issue schoolbooks and humdrum teachers. This pocket-sized marvel, one of a series of books aimed at enlightening the masses on subjects ranging from the mundane (cats) to the exotic (larger moths) by way of commercial vehicles, birds' eggs and cacti, would keep me enthralled for hours on end.

I cannot remember how old I was or even why I came across it, but it was certainly around the time of the Apollo 11 moon-landings. Its smallness immediately attracted me - not just its physical size but more so the Lilliputian text used to jam-pack the book with its strange and wondrous content. Running across the inside front and back page was a diagram of the Milky Way, along with some better-known constellations. The outer envelope of stars defined a geometry akin to a spinning top, whose apexes were labelled the north and south galactic poles -quite the most exotic-sounding places I had ever heard of.

Mostly I struggled to make sense of the compact text, all the time wondering how anyone in a sane state of mind could possibly make out a winged horse and all manner of other mythical beasts from a random smattering of stars. I read that about 50 of these patterns, called constellations, were visible in the night sky above Britain and set about learning to identify as many as possible. I memorised the unfamiliar squiggles (Greek letters) assigned to individual stars to signify their order of brightness and convinced myself that the lines drawn in the book joining each star to make up a constellation actually existed in space but could be seen only from close up (this has subsequently been proved wrong).

The tools of the trade were illustrated in a set of photographs showing telescopes in home-made observatories - mostly improvised sheds in some keen amateur's back garden - all desperately suburban, but also very British. But what really captured my imagination was found in a series of plates interleaved through the text in blocks. Mostly in glorious black and white, some no more than smudges of light, I found them utterly compelling - the Andromeda galaxy, the Whirlpool nebula, sunspots, fuzzy comets and, best of all, a series of dramatic surface shots of the moon taken by the Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter probes. For today's young generation of stargazers, spoilt rotten with images from the Hubble telescope, they would barely pass muster. But to a young boy in 1969 they had a near-mystical quality.

Nick Petford is reader in geology, Kingston University.

 

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