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Burnham's & the history of stars

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franciscosan View Drop Down
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    Posted: 23 Sep 2015 at 16:50
I really like Burnham's Celestial Handbook: An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System, by Robert Burnham, Jr, for a little light bedtime reading.  It is probably a little dated, but it gives information on the stars and other objects visible in the sky for an Amateur's telescope.  For these stars and other objects, it gives their classification, color, size, apparent and true magnitude (brightness), variability, binary systems, distance, luminosity compared to Sol, movement, etc etc.  All of that is interesting to an astronomy wonk, but for me it spurs the imagination.  We generally see the bright objects, but who knows as far as dimmer material maybe even lieing maybe even just out side the Oort Cloud, the farthest reaches of our Solar system, which the Voyager probes are leaving about now.

But also included in Burnham's is the history of stars and other things, like the Messier objects, galaxies and nebulas.  The history of their observation or even discovery, and their analysis is evidence for the progress of astronomy.  But the historical aspect of Burham that I find the most interesting, is the history of the visible stars as told by Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, including the various names that have been applied to them.  For example, Sirius, the Dog Star (overlooking the hottest days, the dog days of Summer) was considered unlucky.  In several ancient sources, it is described as red, whereas modern observation shows that it is blue, and from what we know from the evolution of stars, could not have been red in antiquity.  Modern speculation says that when the ancients were describing it, they were talking metaphorically, red=bad, Sirius=bad, red=Sirius.  Burnham, however, has a different suggestion.
The point though that I am trying to make is that stars and galaxies are cultural objects as well as being natural objects, and they have a history that is sometimes hard to find, I suppose that one can look it up on wikipedia.  But Burnham's has it all in one place, from one mind, listed by constellation, so one has a context when one is looking up Alpha in Canis Major (Sirius) and comparing it to others.  Wikipedia in comparison is probably uneven given that it is a collaborative project from many volunteers.  Of course, Burnham does not list everything, that would impossible, and it would be neat to see an updated version, particularly bringing up exoplanets.

Of course, in addition to having neat facts about the real Aldeberan, there are plenty of tables which are probably useful for a real astronomer, but not entertaining enough for bedtime reading.   Also, plenty of information and photos of nebulae and galaxies.

The Three volumes of Burnham's is often found in library sales, if you choose to buy a copy, I wouldn't necessarily pay much.  It was written in 1976 and available through Dover Press, which, if you don't know about Dover Press, you should.  Dover keeps in print old books that should stay available for a modest price, whether that book is on higher mathematics, or physics, or philosopher, or sailor's knot tying.  Burnham was on the staff of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona. 
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