SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — If you’re looking for a gift that will please the veteran stargazer or an astro-novice on your shopping list this holiday season, a member of the physics faculty at Wittenberg University has done the homework for you. Dan Fleisch, assistant professor of physics, suggests if someone on your Christmas list has been bitten by the astronomy bug, a universe of gift ideas is now at your disposal along with dozens of sure-to-please presents at your local bookstore or online bookseller.
Before reaching for the credit card, Fleisch warns buyers to leave some items on the shelves, however.
"First and foremost, be careful not to confuse astronomy with astrology, " Fleisch said. "If you're perusing a book or magazine in which words like horoscope, planetary houses, aspects, and the signs of the zodiac are prominently featured, that item would make a very bad gift for someone interested in the science of astronomy."
Other things to avoid: any book proclaiming that the "face" on Mars was built by an advanced Martian civilization, or that Einstein and other established scientific knowledge is all wrong, or that the Apollo moon landings were a giant hoax. "While good science is always open to new ideas, the utter lack of logical thought in these tomes reminds us that some authors are apparently more interested in selling books than in enlightening readers," Fleisch explained.
Fleisch added that shoppers should have no trouble avoiding bad astronomy reading material because in this field, excellent writing abounds. For astronomy buffs at almost any level, a subscription to either Sky and Telescope or Astronomy magazine will be glad tidings that last well beyond the holiday season. Both of these magazines offer well-written articles, updates on current space missions, sky charts, equipment reviews and dozens of beautiful astronomical images at a cost of only around $40 for a 12-issue subscription.
For most new skywatchers, learning the constellations is both enjoyable and helpful in locating celestial happenings. The International Astronomical Union designates 88 official constellations, about 20 of which are visible from one location at any instant. For help in learning these constellations, Fleisch recommends The Stars by H.A. Rey ($11.95 from Houghton-Mifflin). This book is notable because Rey connects the dots of each constellation's stars in a way that actually make them look like their namesakes.
“So in Gemini, the Twins, a featureless inverted ‘U’ shape in traditional renderings becomes two charming stick figures holding hands as they saunter across the winter sky,” Fleisch explained. “Rey brings the same common-sense approach to all the constellations, and when I trace shapes in the night sky with my astronomy students, his patterns guide our fingers.”
If someone you know is in a hurry to learn the sky, Stikky Night Skies ($12 from Laurence Holt Publishing) promises to teach its readers to recognize six constellations, four stars, one planet and a galaxy in one hour. Relying on pattern-recognition rather than deep understanding, this is certainly the quickest route to gaining familiarity with the major signposts on the celestial sphere. "If Nightwatch and The Stars are the Discovery Channel, then Stikky Night Skies is MTV," Fleisch noted.
For those with interest in all things planetary, a special edition of Scientific American called "New Light on the Solar System"is on newsstands right now for $5.95. Eleven brief, clearly written articles explain the very latest results of Earth-based and spacecraft exploration of the solar system with plenty of references to related books as well as original research papers.
The end of 2003 has also seen the publication of several spectacular astronomical picture-books. Fleisch’s personal favorite is Beyond by Michael Benson. As its name implies, Beyond ($55 from Harry Abrams Publisher) is a compilation of images taken by spacecraft which have journeyed far beyond the Earthly horizon.
"Benson has created a visually stunning answer to the question of why we explore space and as if eye candy needs icing, several thoughtful essays by Benson, Arthur C. Clarke, and Lawrence Weschler are included,” Fleisch said.
If you’d like to learn more about the best gifts to give solar-loving people, you can visit Fleisch’s Web site at:userpages.wittenberg.edu/dfleisch/
As you make your way to the bookstore or surf the Net for such gifts, consider these words of wisdom from Fleisch, "When you give a gift whose dimensions cover the entire universe, how can you go wrong?"