November 19, 2018

Review: Burnham’s Celestial Handbook.

A few decades back, I mentioned to a friend at a local planetarium of my enduring interest in astronomy. “Surely, then, “ he said pulling out a three volume set, “you have these…” I did not at the time, but I had indeed heard the legends. The books were Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, a three volume compendium on observational astronomy. A few weeks back we did a piece on the man, Robert Burnham Jr. and his tempestuous life; now I’d like to break with tradition a bit a provide a review of this indispensable astronomical classic. This is far from your glossy coffee table astronomy book; this is a down and dirty data set designed by a first rate astronomer and observer for other observers. The work stands singular in its staunch refusal to be digitized or upgraded (the coordinates used are still 1950.0!) and it provides morsels of astronomy you still can’t Google or Wiki anywhere else! Indeed, just the mention of “upgrading” Burnham’s can start an astro-nerd fight in some forums! Such is the hallmark of its cult status…

But enough of the purple prose… what’s in Burnham’s? One first warning; its not a causal read; this is for those who want the brass tacks, such as “how many binaries are in Gemini” or “What is the rate of that cataclysmic variable?” A good star chart is also handy as a companion to this reference. I would also take the time to verse yourself in the the authors own “data-speak,” which he lays out in the beginning of the 1st volume.

All too often, other compendiums stop at the good stuff, what observers would call the “meat”…what’s the apparent surface brightness of that galaxy? The position angle of a given double star? Not so with Burnham’s. The ironic thing is, the author originally never intended the work for publication! The volumes grew out of piles of notebooks filled with data that Burnham gathered during decades of observing, starting in his teenage years and culminating in his time at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. One can imagine a teenage Burnham, unfettered by modern Internet preconceptions, discovering the universe first hand and jotting down what he saw.

But the volumes aren’t mere tables of data; tidbits of history and even poetry are interspersed within. I especially like the quote in the introduction from 13th century Chinese historian Tai T’ung; “Were I to await perfection, my book would never be finished.” Its remarkable to note that although it may appear at first glance as a dry set of tables and data, more of the author’s shy but sincere personality shines through than is generally acknowledged. Although he tried his hand at other works, the three volume Handbook is what he’ll always be known for.

The sections are laid out very simply and in a quick reference format; after an introductory crash course in theoretical and observational astronomy in the first volume, the author dissects each constellation in alphabetical order, from Andromeda to Vulpecula. It further breaks down each with descriptive notes on stars and objects, adding relevant histories and observations. It then wraps up each section will a quick, rapid fire list of lesser known objects.

If you own only one hard copy volume set, own Burnham’s. Seek it out at better used bookstores or online at Ebay or Amazon. I know of no other reference that has been as enduring, except maybe T.W. Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes. Nothing on the Internet comes close for such an intimate reference, and with Burnham’s in your observatories’ library, you’ll earn the silent nod of other seasoned sky pilots that are “in the know!”

 

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