Today on Project Gutenberg we have…
Pleasures of the Telescope by Garrett P. Serviss
This book comes to us all the way from 1901. It presents itself as “An Illustrated Guide for Amateur Astronomers and A Popular Description of the Chief Wonders of the Heavens for General Readers.” The author, Garrett Putnam Serviss, was actually one of the more famous astronomers in America at the time. With his many contributions to newspapers and magazines and his touring series of lectures in the mid-1890s, he helped popularize the idea of astronomy as a hobby. Also, he climbed the Matterhorn and wrote a sci-fi novel called Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Neither of those are important for understanding this book, but don’t they sound awesome?
It was said that Serviss had a knack for explaining scientific facts to non-scientific people, i.e. ordinary readers. Although this particular book was targeted at people who already knew a thing or two about astronomy, you can still see how he wrote in a way that makes all this stuff more accessible. The tone of the book is warm and conversational, as though Serviss and the reader are just hanging out on a nice evening and looking at stars:
Let us imagine ourselves the happy possessors of three properly mounted telescopes of five, four, and three inches aperture, respectively. A fine midwinter evening has come along, the air is clear, cool, and steady, and the heavens, of that almost invisible violet which is reserved for the lovers of celestial scenery, are spangled with stars that hardly twinkle. We need not disturb our minds about a few thin clouds here and there floating lazily in the high air; they announce a change of weather, but they will not trouble us to-night.
Which way shall we look? Our eyes will answer the question for us. However we may direct them, they instinctively return to the south, and are lifted to behold Orion in his glory, now near the meridian and midway to the zenith, with Taurus shaking the glittering Pleiades before him, and Canis Major with the flaming Dog Star following at his heels.
Not only is Orion the most brilliant of all constellations to the casual star-gazer, but it contains the richest mines that the delver for telescopic treasures can anywhere discover. We could not have made a better beginning, for here within a space of a few square degrees we have a wonderful variety of double stars and multiple stars, so close and delicate as to test the powers of the best telescopes, besides a profusion of star-clusters and nebulæ, including one of the supreme marvels of space, the Great Nebula in the Sword.Pages 19-20
The book’s first chapter, which covers how a telescope actually works and how to acquire a good one, is a little too dense and dry for my tastes. Most of the book is concerned with what you would find in the night sky itself, with detailed descriptions of constellations, notable stars and planets. To provide visual aids, the book also comes with several dozen maps and charts that you can use to follow along with Serviss. These have thankfully been included in the Gutenberg version of the text, so you can use them as well. They make reading the book a lot easier, especially if you don’t have a telescope of your own handy. Come to think of it, I wonder how closely our modern view of the sky would match up with what people 120 years ago were seeing…
Though I’m not much of a science person myself, one thing I can definitely appreciate about the book is Serviss’s enthusiasm for this subject. There is no substitute, he says, for actually seeing the natural world in action, and being able to observe astronomical phenomena for yourself will give you a new appreciation for them:
There are hundreds of things continually referred to in books and writings on astronomy which have but a misty and uncertain significance for the mere reader, but which he can easily verify for himself with the aid of a telescope of four or five inches aperture, and which, when actually confronted by the senses, assume a meaning, a beauty, and an importance that would otherwise entirely have escaped him. Henceforth every allusion to the objects he has seen is eloquent with intelligence and suggestion.
Take, for instance, the planets that have been the subject of so many observations and speculations of late years—Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus. For the ordinary reader much that is said about them makes very little impression upon his mind, and is almost unintelligible. He reads of the “snow patches” on Mars, but unless he has actually seen the whitened poles of that planet he can form no clear image in his mind of what is meant. So the “belts of Jupiter” is a confusing and misleading phrase for almost everybody except the astronomer, and the rings of Saturn are beyond comprehension unless they have actually been seen.Pages 139-140
You might have noticed a few names missing from that list of planets there. Well, that’s something Serviss actually talks about in the final chapter of the book. Are there other planets out there among the stars? We know nowadays that the answer to that question is yes, at least in our own solar system. But Serviss isn’t just interested in the solar system here. He’s looking far beyond the borders of our corner of space, wondering if more systems like our own exist and if the planets there could support intelligent life. The conclusion he comes to is that we may not know of any other planets or systems now, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. He wrote that it was disheartening to imagine the idea that the solar system is a wholly unique phenomenon, and therefore that we are alone in the universe. He would rather “cherish the belief that there are eyes to see and minds to think out in celestial space” (page 192).
This is a fun little book. It’s dense in some places and probably a bit outdated, but it neatly accomplishes its goal of making science more accessible. If you consider yourself an astronomer, you may want to consider using Serviss’s observations as a guide the next time you’ve got a clear night sky.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!