Photo-Guide to the Constellations
by Chris Kitchin
(part of the Practical Astronomy Series edited by Patrick Moore)


Book Review by Joe Orman

[Originally published in the newsletter of the East Valley Astronomy Club, October 2000]

I've often wished for a simple book that would explain the constellations as I see them in the sky. On the left-hand page would be a photo of a section of sky, and on the right-hand page a diagram of the same area, at exactly the same scale and orientation, with all the stars and stick-figure constellations clearly labeled. Unfortunately, this is not the book I have been wishing for. Subtitled A Self-Teaching Guide to Finding Your Way Around the Heavens, it is intended to be used in the field. But I never got that far; you know you're in trouble when you struggle with a guidebook while reading it in your armchair!

The format of the book sounds promising. For each patch of sky, there is a stick-figure diagram of the constellations, plus three photos of the same area, representing what you'd expect to see with three different levels of light pollution:

The light-polluted photos are worthless; you have to squint to see ANY stars. For example, the photo of the Aquila-Ophiucus area shows only one star -- Altair. The photos showing more stars are not much better; viewed by a red flashlight, the stars are all but invisible. If the publisher could not find a way to reproduce photos clearly, they should have simply printed "negatives" of the star diagrams (white dots on a black background). In this case, actual photos may not be the best choice to accurately represent what a person will see.

There are a lot of other things wrong with this book. The layout is not consistent from page to page; the order of the diagrams vs. photos changes, and not all of the photos are on same page as the text or diagram that describes them. In some cases, the text refers to three different figures on three different pages -- all that page-flipping is bound to lead to frustration. The mythological origins of the constellations are in a separate chapter, and it is never explained how they correspond to the stick figures. And there is also a section of very complicated charts to calculate when each constellation will be in the sky. All of this is so confusing that anyone, especially a beginner, trying to actually use this book in the field will probably become discouraged and give up -- certainly not the intended result!

There's gotta be a better way. My imaginary ideal book would have all of the information for each patch of sky (diagram, photo, description, mythology) on two facing pages, even if that meant making the book's dimensions a bit larger. The biggest lesson I learned from this book: A guide meant to be used in the field should be clear, organized and concise -- everything this one is not. It's hard enough finding your way around the constellations; you shouldn't need help finding your way around the book.

Revised: June 3, 2004
Copyright © 2001 Joe Orman
Joe Orman's Home Page