Review: “Discover the Moon”

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2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, and oft told is the tale of when Galileo turned his telescope from terrestrial objects to heavenly bodies, an ongoing view of amazement and wonder that helped to change the nature of astronomy forever.

Most astronomers have wandered far afield from Galileo’s first celestial destination, our Moon, and spend their time with black holes and galaxies and supernova and other objects far, far away. In many respects the Moon becomes the enemy of the deep-space astronomer, as it light pollutes the night sky and blocks a fair-sized chunk of it.

Some of us, though, become enamored of the ever same yet ever changing Moon as she circles us in the sky, and tend not to wander too far afield. This surprisingly large bunch of folks is typically found over at the Lunar Photo of the Day, run by the world-famous Charles Woods.

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The study of heavenly bodies is of course a global phenomenon, and while I was in France back in 2000 for my studies at ISU, Bordas published the book ‘Découvrir la Lune‘, a debutant level guide to Moongazing that is now out-of-print. I was, unfortunately, too poor a grad student at the time to afford both it and Rükl’s ‘Atlas de la Lune‘. Years later, as my infatuation with our Moon grew along with the Lunar Library, I would oft regret that unmade purchase, and could sense there was something missing from the La Lune section of the Library.

Late last year, co-author Christian Legrand, creator of the online (and free!) Virtual Lunar Atlas, stumbled across the Lunar Library in his perambulations around the internet. He mentioned that his book had been translated into English by Cambridge University Press as ‘Discover the Moon‘ and had been released in the U.S. in 2008, weighing in at 143 pages all-in. After unsuccessfully searching at the local bookboxes, I ended up ordering from Amazon, and was soon perambulating my way across the face of the Moon.

The authors begin with a brief explanation of why N vs. S and E vs. W on the Moon is so confusing. Everyone’s first response is always “Hey, it’s upside down”, and, depending on the kind of telescope you use, it may also be flipped sideways. To overcome the difficulties associated with this, they decided to present 2 photos of each area, because you never know what kind of telescope Grandma and Grandpa are going to splurge on for their grandkids. Two icons are used to distinguish between the views through reflecting and Newtonian telescopes.

Diving into the book, we get some background on our sister in space. The question is posed “What is there to see on the Moon?” with numerous examples cited of interesting features. Also noted are several online resources for Moon lovers – Association of Lunar & PLanetary Observers, British Astronomical Association Lunar Section, and American Lunar Society.

Next up we look at the movements of the Moon, providing some basic almanac data and noting some of the unusual characteristics. Of note is that no other planet has a moon anywhere near as big relative to the parent body. The used-to-be planet Pluto has a moon that is 66% its diameter (as compared with 27% for Earth), but Pluto has also been demoted to a dwarf planet, a rather unpopular thing in some quarters, but not without merit. If Pluto is a planet at 2,274 km in diameter, then why is not our larger Moon with a diameter of 3,476 km? Or Ceres at 940 km? They’re all spherical. But just as Ceres is considered the largest example of the Asteroid Belt objects, Pluto is considered one of the largest examples of the Kuiper Belt/Oort Cloud objects.

Back on topic, the authors explain why we get to see 59% of the Moon’s surface when it keeps the same face towards us, and cover the phases of the Moon. Throughout this section the labels on the illustrative graphics remain in their original French. Consider it a challenge, and it does support a mnemonic device explained by the authors to help keep the first and last quarters straight as to which is which and when.

Next up we look at the telescope equipment used for taking a closer look at our Moon, and where some good locations might be found to get away from the terrible light pollution found around cities, where we pay lots of money to generate electricity to throw light into space. If you’re not familiar with the Dark Skies Initiative, then you need to inform yourself as to what can be done to not throw so much light into space. I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the Milky Way as an adult. Can you?

Also explained are the various photographic means that can be used to document your Lunar sojourns, from traditional film methods to more modern webcams and CCDs.

Then we dive into the day-by-day guide that outlines the prominent features that become visible each night on a global scale. Each pair of photos then has three or more particular areas that are boxed off and visited in greater detail in succeeding pages. These elaborations are where you’ll find the hints on particular features like rilles or domes for which to look on any particular night. The images are all photographic, which helps when matching things up when looking at things through the ocular (a/k/a eyepiece). Features are numbered in the photo, with names gathered in a sidebar, which leaves the photos relatively uncluttered.

Scattered throughout are sidebars that highlight ancillary but useful information. Not noted, but of interest is a factoid that I picked up in my delvings into orbital mechanics – there are over 150 variables that go into the calculation of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, accounting for perturbations in the perfect elliptical orbit from sources like the Sun, Moon, Jupiter, Saturn and other planets, the mass of the center of our galaxy, the oblateness of our own Earth (what the guys doing LEO satellite orbits would call the J2 effect) and more. Folks who think our Moon is a simple little thing are woefully mistaken; her subtleties are legion, and there remain many mysteries yet to be solved.

We finish with an updated list of reference books (not all of which, I’ll admit, are in the Lunar Library) and some internet websites of note (but alas not the LL. I’ll have to have a word with M. Legrand about that for the next edition…). There’s a list of the Latin terms used in Moon nomenclature, the index, and the list of the photo credits. Oh, and there are maps on the inside flaps of the cover.

The only other title of recent vintage in the Lunar Library that is really comparable is Grego’s ‘Moon Observer’s Guide‘, which is written for a bit more sophisticated audience. This makes ‘Discover the Moon‘ an ideal beginner’s book for all ages, as it isn’t intimidating (or at least, less so) to younger curious minds, but is still accessible to adult beginners.

M. Legrand was kind enough to send an autographed copy of the French edition to the Lunar Library, which allowed me to read through the original text to get a sense for the translation. In all honesty, I think some of the finer subtleties of the French language escaped the translator(s) at Cambridge University Press. Additionally, there is the fact that the graphics (but not the photos) in the book are still in French, as if the publishers were trying to keep the expenses associated with the English language edition to a bare-bones minimum. This is not to say that the translation is bad or hard to read, just that there may be a couple of times where you’re just like “Huh?” Also, if you’re not familiar with $/£ foreign exchange, the long term rate is $1.50 for each £1.00 (or, $1.00 buys 66 pence, though it can vary significantly in the short-run), as all of the reference prices are in British pounds.

So while it does have its flaws, I still think this is an excellent book for anyone, young or old, who’s starting out with Moon observing. The photos are clear and look like what I see through my scope. Many, many features are noted, enough to keep you busy for a while. As a consequence, I’ll go with a waning Full Moon rating on the English language edition, and a Full Moon on the French language edition.

4 thoughts on “Review: “Discover the Moon”

  1. STARTALK

    If you’re looking for another great insight into the vast space that surrounds us, check out Neil deGrasse Tyson on his radio show, StarTalk. Tyson has made appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. He was named Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by PEOPLE Magazine. Tune in on Sundays at 3 PM to Chat About It Radio for a relaxing afternoon discussing the mysteries of space!

  2. It looks like the summer intern is tapping the space-related social networks. The question is whether he’s going to be talking about our Moon. Hmmm, let’s see…

    Since they didn’t leave an address of where to find this program (to get through the spam filters), it can be found at:

    http://startalkradio.net/

    Nope, no Moon stuff. Not sure then how the comment relates to the book review it’s appended to, but oh well. I do respect Dr. Tyson’s work, and his co-host is kind of hot, so I’ll go ahead and leave this one up.

  3. Hey Ken!

    It’s the summer interns– thanks for leaving our post up! We may not always be discussing the moon, but our topics are certainly captivating! Everyone listen in!

  4. Ever look at the sky on a warm summer’s eve and wonder what lies beyond the captivating reds and oranges of the sunset? Or, do you ever lie beneath the twinkling stars on a clear night and wonder what it all means? Tomorrow is your chance to have all your questions answered. Neil deGrasse Tyson, world renowned astrophysicist, is doing a live taping of his interactive radio show, Star Talk, tomorrow at 8 PM on Chataboutit.com. Call into the show with your questions and be a part of the answers to the phenomenon of the summer sky.

    Star Talk – 8 PM
    Call: 877-CHA-T212

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