Introduction

You are not alone.

Relax. That statement has nothing to do with the existence of extraterrestrial life— though we will get around to that, too, way out in Chapter 24, "Table for One." For the present, it applies only to our mutual interest in astronomy. For we (the authors) and you (the reader) have come together because we are the kind of people who look up at the sky a lot and have all kinds of questions about it. This habit hardly brands us as unique. Astronomy, the scientific study of matter in outer space, is among the most ancient of human studies. The very earliest scientific records we have—from Babylon, from Egypt, from China—all concern astronomy.

Recorded history spans about 5,500 years. The recorded history of astronomy starts at the beginning of that period. People have been sky watchers for a very, very long time.

And yet astronomy is also among the most modern of sciences. Although we possess the collected celestial observations of some 50 centuries, almost all that we know about the universe we have learned in the century just ended, and most of that knowledge has been gathered since the development of radio astronomy in the 1950s. In fact, the lifetime of any reader of this book, no matter how young, is filled with astronomical discoveries that merit being called milestones. Think it was a pretty big deal when Copernicus, in the early sixteenth century, proposed that the sun, not the earth, was at the heart of the solar system? Well, did you know that a Greek astronomer actually proposed the same idea nearly 2,000 years earlier? His pitch just wasn't as good.

Astronomy is an ancient science on the cutting edge. Great discoveries were made centuries ago. Great discoveries are being made today. And great leaps forward in astronomical knowledge have often followed leaps forward in technology: the invention of the telescope, the invention of the computer, the development of fast, cheap computers. So much is being learned every day that we've been asked to bring out a revised edition of this book, the first edition of which came out only two years ago. And even more recent discoveries will be on the table by the time you read this new edition.

Yet you don't have to be a government or university scientist with your eager fingers on millions of dollars' worth of equipment to make those discoveries. For if astronomy is both ancient and advanced, it is also universally accessible: up for grabs.

The sky belongs to anyone with eyes, a mind, imagination, a spark of curiosity, and the capacity for wonder. If you've also got a few dollars to spend, a good pair of binoculars or a telescope makes more of the sky available to you. (Even if you don't want to spend the money, chances are your local astronomy club will let you use members equipment if you come and join them for a cold night under the stars.) And if you have a PC and Internet connection available, you—yes, you—have access to much of the information that those millions of dollars in government equipment produce: images from the world's great telescopes and from a wealth of satellite probes, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars Global Surveyor. This information is all free for the downloading. (See Appendix E, "Sources for Astronomers" for some starting points in your online searches.)

We are not alone. No science is more inclusive than astronomy.

Nor is astronomy strictly a spectator sport. You don't have to peek through a knothole and watch the game. You're welcome to step right up to the plate. Many new comets are discovered by astronomy buffs, backyard sky watchers, not Ph.D. scientists in a domed observatory. Most meteor observations are the work of amateurs. You can even get in on such seemingly esoteric fields as radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (see Chapter 7, "Over the Rainbow" for both).

But most important are the discoveries you can make for yourself: like really seeing the surface of the moon, or looking at the rings of Saturn for the first time through your own telescope, or observing the phases of Venus, or suddenly realizing that the fuzzy patch of light you're looking at is not just Messier Object 31, but Andromeda, a whole galaxy as vast as our own. Those photons that left Andromeda millions of years ago are landing on your retina.

We'd enjoy nothing more than to help you get started on your journey. Here's a map.

Telescopes Mastery

Telescopes Mastery

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