A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, Fourth Edition.
Review by Gary Seronik
I HAVE HAD A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP with this volume of the Peterson Field Guides series since I purchased my first copy in 1975. I love the concept --a single-volume guide to the night sky complete with star charts for naked-eye constellation identification, an atlas for use at the telescope, and a veritable treasure-trove of descriptive text, calendrical information (now updated through 2010), and data tables. Unfortunately, I hate the way many important aspects of this book are compromised by its 4 1/2-by-7 1/4-inch size.
This new edition represents the first major overhaul since 1983, but it still adheres to the same basic format presented in the first edition of Stars and Planets, which was authored by the late Donald H. Menzel, former director of Harvard College Observatory. (Jay M. Pasachoff has been involved since the second edition.) The book still consists of three main sections: the monthly sky maps, an atlas of the celestial sphere, and several chapters on locating and observing the planets (including a modest lunar atlas).
The monthly maps come in two sets --one for each hemisphere. They remain one of the book's strengths. Facing pages present views of the night sky toward north and south. The next two pages have the same maps reproduced without the constellation lines and labels. This feature is especially valuable for beginners, who often have a hard time relating star maps to what they see in the night sky. Previous editions had white stars on a black background, but in keeping with the fourth edition's "mo'-color, mo'-better" approach, the new charts feature white stars on an attractive blue sky.
The atlas section that follows is potentially the most useful part of the book, but in practice it's something of a mixed bag. For the fourth edition, master celestial cartographer Wil Tirion has redrawn his charts--52 covering the entire sky, along with 5 more showing selected regions in greater detail. The previous edition's stoic white-on-black charts have been retired in favor of confetti-colored stars and a pale blue Milky Way, set against a white background. The star colors correspond to spectral classification. Although striking in appearance, the charts fail the red-flashlight test--galaxy symbols completely disappear and other object markers become nearly impossible to spot. This "improvement" will have deep-sky observers digging out their older editions.
Other problems with the atlas section are the same as ever. Although the atlas plots stars down to magnitude 7.5 and depicts some 2,500 deep-sky objects, the chart scale is a meager 6 millimeters per degree. The result is an atlas that is challenging to use in the field even with a magnifying glass. Also, in a book where space is so tight, I question the wisdom of devoting a quarter of every chart page to an identical symbol key. Sure it's handy, but do we need to see it on every chart?
The overall appearance of the book is attractive, thanks largely to the color pictures. While many of the images are quite striking, a surprisingly high number simply aren't very good or are reproduced poorly. Many lose their impact by being printed at postage-stamp size. Sometimes the effect is almost comical. For example, the picture of the Hyades and Pleiades on page 248 is so small that at first glance it looks like a first-timer's photograph of the Double Cluster in Perseus. In other instances the result is a caption/photo disconnect. On page 171, the reader is encouraged to note the two companion galaxies of the Andromeda Galaxy, but they have been rendered invisible by the microscopic scale. Also, given the space constraints, I was left wondering why certain objects were depicted several times and, in the case of the Ring Nebula, why the same picture was used in two different places. I would much rather have seen fewer pictures reproduced at a decent size than this collection of celestial portrait miniatures.
In spite of these shortcomings, the book has much to recommend it: the descriptive notes are engaging, the tables and graphic timetable charts are clear, and text is generally very well done. If my comments seem overly critical, let me quickly add that these problems seem particularly aggravating because the book is so tantalizingly close to being what it sets out to be: a single-volume guide to the night sky. It really would be great to have one book that I can toss into my equipment bag when I head out for a night of casual observing.
For observers seeking a small-format atlas, The Observer's Sky Atlas by Erich Karkoschka (Springer-Verlag, 1999) would work better. Those who can spare a little more space on their observing tables should consider Terence Dickinson's excellent NightWatch * (Firefly Publishing), which covers much of the same ground as Stars and Planets.
Stars and Planets is still the best pocket-size "field guide." However, I have to confess that in spite of the up-to-date tables of information and splashy appearance of the fourth edition, it will be the third edition that I take with me when I head out for a night under the stars. I guess my love/hate relationship with Stars and Planets is destined to survive at least a few more years.
* Available from Sky Publishing.