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Dead Book Diaries - A Field Book of the Stars by; William Tyler Olcott

Updated on October 4, 2014

Jewels of the Night Sky


On Science as a Hobby

Stargazing a is one of those few past times where one is consciously aware that they are engaging in scientific inquiry. It's also one of the best ways to to afford oneself with the opportunity to bring a little of the extraordinary in a very ordinary life. The nigh sky is a plethora of beautiful, and sometimes mysterious, phenomena.

As a natural science, observational astronomy (stargazing by another name) can be studied by anyone regardless if they can improvise a telescope or own a pair of binoculars, but what does it mean to take on a science as a hobby? Quite a lot actually. When a person is consciously engaged in a science, even as a hobby, they can open their minds to scientific thinking and all of the possibilities that it entails.

There is a magic to such thinking in the sense of wonder that it invokes within us. For most of our adult lives our sense of wonder and a need to ask why is repressed, and socially is typically relegated to childhood. The need to know, and that sense of wonder is still there within all of us (as indicated by the popularity of documentaries and other factual media as entertainment), however, society demands that we function as though we already know everything.

When we engage in scientific past time be it stargazing, bird watching, or even rock collecting we are bravely casting aside the notion that have all the answers, and embrace the unknown. With that will, as a natural and welcome consequence, will come wonder and all of its cohorts.

Olcott would have surely loved to have owned one of these.
Olcott would have surely loved to have owned one of these. | Source

About the Book and its Author

Mr. Olcott was an interesting sort of fellow. While he was never a scientist by profession, he was actively engaged in scientific activity on a regular basis. He also wanted to promote his favorite past time while making it more accessible to the masses. One of the ways he did so was to publish books on the subject. Most notable of his written works is A Field Book of the Stars; an attempted practical guide to amateur astronomy.

To the author's credit, the book is surprisingly accurate on many points. The mapping out of the overall arrangement of the stars in each individual constellation is a good example of this. Embedded within each entry of the constellations he writes about are tantalizing little tidbit of information concerning both the lore of those from various cultures, and any practical information that might help to apply what can be learned from amateur level astronomy. There is also fair amount of information about other observable astronomical phenomena; like planets and meteor showers.

He also makes the point that the neither most expensive or sophisticated equipment is really not necessary to participate. The most advanced piece of equipment he mentions with any regularity are opera glasses. Opera glasses as a stargazing are mentioned so frequently that is't likely that this was the primary observational device at this disposal. Another tool he mentions very frequently is the humble almanac. The modern equivalents of both are readily available today.

For all of the good that's in this book there are some pretty serious drawbacks. Some of these, thankfully, the author openly acknowledges. One is limitation of viewing area. Its a known fact that where you physically are in the world will determine what you see in the night sky, and this book was written primarily for use in the northeaster section of the United States. Also, the author limited the text to what could actually be seen with either the naked eye or minimally available magnification.

Another is that the information is dated. The universe does not stand still, and the stars have shifted position a bit since this book's initial publication in 1907. While this shift in position is very slight, it can affect what is actually observed in the present. Finally, as this is not a scientific text in the truest sens of the term. It's a book written for the hobbyist. As a result he has allowed some of his biases to show through via not only what information he chose to include, but also in his choice of wording. All of which is easily compensated for with both modern supplementary materials (like the video below) and on the ground observation.

Astronomy 101

A Note to Those who Work in the Gaming Industry

There are numerous elements to game play; one of which is navigation of the game world. Astronomical navigation could easily be an interesting element to a game. There is also a great deal of lore associated with the stars that has already been build upon in games like the Elder Scrolls series.

Its Modern Value

Olcott clearly never meant for his work to be seen as the seminal text on any subject, but it makes for a great starting point, especially if you happen to live in the northern hemisphere. Nearly all of the stars and constellations listed can be seen throughout the northern hemisphere at various times of the year.

The information in the book itself provides a good foundation for learning the skill of astronomical navigation within the confines of the northern hemisphere. If you find yourself lost out in the middle of nowhere, and your GPS has failed you the stars can be used as a guide (or perhaps more accurately a compass) to find you way back to civilization.

If you have school-age children this book can part of a really cool science/research project. Simply take what's in the text and compare it to both modern resources and on the ground observations of the night sky. Your child an use their findings to illustrate the importance time and location when making astronomical observation with the aid of recorded data; helping to make them scientifically literate adults.

For the most part however, it provides a gateway for our thoroughly technologically entrenched selves to take a step back from the physically isolating effects of regular television and internet use, and a step (either alone or with friends, family, or that "special" someone) into the natural for a little while to appreciate the night sky. In the process we open our minds to the possibilities of the universe, and the sense of wonder that we so often deny ourselves during the day. Also, if you have ventured out with a companion you will have someone with which you can share all of this with.

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