Deep-Sky Wonders

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Deep_Sky_Wonders.jpg 222x 334Deep-Sky Wonders
Walter Scott Houston
Stephen James O’Meara (ed.)
Sky Publishing Corp, Cambridge, MA, 1999


From 1946 to 1994, Sky & Telescope featured a monthly column written by Walter Scott Houston called Deep-Sky Wonders.  A prolific and accomplished observer, and a gifted writer, "Scotty" created a monthly guide for the dedicated amateur which captured the wonder and delight of exploring the farthest reaches of the deep sky.  His articles featured not only well-known celestial sights but also introduced many fainter, obscure, challenging objects for his readers.  Typically, each article was a guided tour, often concentrating on a small region of the sky or sometimes on a particular type of object.  Deep-Sky Wonders became one of the most widely read and enjoyed sections of Sky & Telescope.

His editor, Stephen James O’Meara, remarks that "Scotty’s columns were structurally complex --- a mixture of colorful prose, descriptive history, helpful hints, and observational commentary, in no fixed order."  Sky & Telescope Senior Editor Dennis di Cicco recalls "Scotty had a way of getting past the charts and numbers to make the night sky come alive."  His articles ranged far and wide over the whole subject of visual astronomical observation.

Scotty saw his job as being one to cajole, coerce, and otherwise inspire others to go out and observe, no matter what the target.  He knew that the most important piece of equipment was the eye.  Its training was the most important activity; all else was trivial in comparison.  Time not spent honing your observing skills was time wasted.

The column was driven largely by the responses of readers taking up Houston’s challenge to see as much as they could.  Scotty quoted their results with abandon in order to follow up on objects and techniques already discussed and then to steer the discussion in new directions.

The best aspect of the column was that he prepared program for an interesting evening of stargazing.  There was something for everyone.  The newcomer was introduced to the brighter, frequently viewed objects, and the seasoned observer was rewarded with fainter, previously unseen sights.  Following this program was going to make you a better, more experienced observer.

Now, Walter Scott Houston’s editor, Stephen James O’Meara, has selected and edited a collection of Deep-Sky Wonders articles into book form.  The editing is intelligent with full respect for Scotty’s original text.  Most of the edits involve only transitional phrases, occasional footnotes to clarify obscure or ambiguous material, and to utilize consistent nomenclature and accurate reference data.  With chapters arranged by month, we tour the night sky with five to seven articles taken from a span of years in no particular order before moving on to the next month.

And herein lies my only complaint about the book.  Editing these articles into book format did not retain the original magazine page layout; the look, but not the feel, of the articles is lost.

If you love astronomy and you’re facing a cloudy evening, I cannot think of a better book to get your mind right.  You’ll look forward with planned anticipation to that next dark, clear night to take up Scotty’s challenges.

Finally, the 309-page book features an extensive index, many B&W photos, complete catalog listing of objects by month including celestial coordinates and corresponding page numbers for 3 contemporary star atlases; it’s a bargain at $19.95.



A favorite Scotty story:

In the summer of 1980, reflecting his age, Walter Scott Houston finally underwent surgery to remove a cataract from his right eye.  Now to just about anyone else, a cataract would spell the end of a sky gazing career. But not Houston.  With his lens removed and a plastic UV-transparent replacement implanted, Scotty reported that a whole new world of star gazing was opened up.  The flood of ultraviolet light onto his retina allowed him to see faint blue stars previously invisible by at least one magnitude above the visual limit (to normally sighted observers).  He seemed to take delight in describing the hot blue central stars of planetary nebulae, especially the Ring Nebula, now easily viewed with small telescopes.  Indeed, it was very amusing to read his accounts and skill in estimating, with his left eye, the visual magnitude of a particular star, and with his right eye, the photographic (blue sensitive) magnitude!


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