Book Review

 Burnham's Celestial Handbook

Robert Burnham Jr


= Reviewed by Allen Yu =

A review of this three volume series books, very much overdue, perhaps owing to the fact that the author himself has long been forgotten (or mistaken to another Robert Burnham, editor of Astronomy Magazine until 1996, who, coincidentally also published frequently Celestial Handbook). Despite the confusion, Robert Burnham Jr. shunned publicity. The series is on (and should be if you still don't have it) every amateur astronomer's shelf.

Robert Burnham Jr. died in 1993, but it was only four years later in 1997 that astronomer's worldwide came to know his death. He has served Lowell Observatory for 21 years, got laid off which pained him so much, his career and life went downhill, unable to resurrect. Definitely he was lost in circulation, the last years of his life saw him selling cat paintings on parks and walking aimlessly on beaches.

Burnham's contribution to the amateur astronomers is astounding. A massive 2,000++ pages of dedicated research work continues to enhance amateurs alike to this day; perhaps he has no idea how his work inspired generations of skygazers. Initially published in 1966 with incredible shortage of errors, it is now a classic having passed the test of time (now almost 40 years of circulation and still selling!). Today, despite severely outdated in data and information, it provides the reader with essential understanding of the universe' mechanism. There is something in Burnham's text, he presents basic, cataloged and technical terms altogether, but reading his notes reveals some magic: it is nothing but JOYFUL READING. This is one series where readers will soon place another new set of order for their shelves, with their previous set now torn apart on the binds, on the verge of retirement due to heavy use!

The books themselves may fail to please aesthetically the modern reader from the outside cover, even the inside as well its old fashioned "typewritten font" and "boxed" text, but the contents will soon prove the general inspector wrong. The quality of photos inside are not even compromised, still very at par aesthetically with today's astroimagers. It boasts images from the best large observatories at the time. The format of his writing is very structured. The contents are arranged in constellations alphabetically, within it the major stars, then the deep sky objects. Whenever some interesting topics are needed to explain a star characteristic, he injects it accordingly, so the reader does not lost track of his/her understanding of the text. Be it an explanation of black hole, simple formulas, white dwarfs, novae…technical information does not scare the reader, instead it provides the urge to continue reading further.

The celestial handbook has successfully covered all the most important objects visible from 2.5" to 10" aperture scopes, in each constellation, and is more than enough reference available for casual and average amateurs. The strength of the book is its descriptive notes, a brilliant literary art friendly to majority. The weakness is, being an old book, very outdated. Nevertheless, information such as stellar magnitudes nor distances, and spectral types are not critical (yet!) to casual observers, understanding of theories need to be refined, but its always best to start with old data and theories as foundation, and when the reader will soon graduate to newer theories, the celestial handbook thus becomes history!

All in all, this is still a powerful package. A must have for every amateur. Quote per quote, Burnham unleashed his inner within, his deep love on the science: "Yet it sometimes happens, perhaps because of the very real aesthetic appeal of astronomy and the almost incomprehensible vastness of the universe, that the more solidly practical and duller mentalities tend to see the study as an "escape from reality" - surely one of the most thoroughly lop-sided views ever propounded. The knowledge obtained from astronomy has always been, and will continue to be, of the greatest practical value. But this apart, only the myopic minds could identify "reality" solely with the doings of man on this planet. Contemporary civilization, whatever its advantages and achievements, is characterized by many features which are, to put it very mildly, disquieting; to turn from this increasingly artificial and strangely alien world is to escape from unreality; to return to the timeless world of the mountains, the sea, the forest, and the stars is to return to sanity and truth." Very well said, this is amateur astronomy at best!



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