Saturday, 28 April 2012

Cosmic Challenge by Philip S. Harrington - A review

Cosmic Challenge - The Ultimate Observing List for Amateurs by Philip S. Harrington
Cambridge University Press (November 30, 2010)
ISBN: 9780521899369
466 (true) pages

Rating: 8/10 - Recommended

The ultimate observing list for amateurs. With such a name for a book you're entitled to some serious challenges from the night sky. I have to admit, I wasn't sure about getting this book. The main reason was, that I don't like digital sketches and I knew Philip's are digitally made. For me, such sketches easily spoil any book, article or anything they're associated with. Using, say Adobe Photoshop might let you do all the work with a computer but even a simple diffuse, nebulous glow is something that a computer cannot do properly without making it look otherworldly. And digital sketches hardly represent the true eyepiece view - this is the main reason why I dislike them.

So how are the sketches in the book? Well, surprisingly good. There are some bad apples to my eye in the bunch such as: M57 and NGC 7331 to name a few. The biggest problem by far in the book is that the most of the sketches are so low contrast that you actually have to us averted vision to spot them! I understand this is to represent the difficulty of the objects and how they even can look at the eyepiece but contrast up man! This issue was already discussed in but I was surprised at how obvious it was. Also, the accuracy of star placement in some of sketches is staggering to a point I wonder if they've been actually done to a printed starfields? I'm not saying such accuracy is impossible to achieve - it would just literally take hours. Most of the drawings have very, very high accuracy but some have some misplacement here and there but this is rare. So I suppose the original sketches are handmade.

What of the actual challenges? You can, of course, have many thoughts about them. I love the fact that there are so many of them and more importantly for all apertures! What a great idea to have some naked eye challenges for a start! I would have liked to see sketches of them too which sadly are missing.

I personally would have changed several objects to different telescope categories but this isn't MY book is it. I'm glad there are some real challenges (although a bit too obvious ones) for monster telescopes (15 inch aperture and larger) such as Einstein's Cross, Hickson 50, Seyfert's Sextet and so on. From my point of view, some of the monster telescope challenges should be in large telescope challenges instead (10- to 14 inch telescope). Such objects are Leo I, IC 1613, (brightest of) M31 globulars, Terzan 7, WLM, Simeis 147 are most certainly small telescope challenges (although being difficult with larger ones as well). For example the author speaks of how difficult it is to observe the entire Simeis 147 at once in the narrow fields of view of large aperture telescopes. Could there be a better place for a high quality, wide field refractor than this? No! Especially considering that there are many observations of the object seen only with apertures around 4 inches! Some other that did hit the eye were galaxies beyond M44 (if you remember, Steve Waldee has seen all of these listed in the book with his 10 inch telescope!), Copeland's Septet, PK 164+31.1 (both visible with 8 inch aperture) and several other galaxies and groups should at least be downgraded to the "large telescope challenges" for sure. But most of the "bad" things in the book can be discarded as matter of opinion and personal taste. Other little things I noted (desperately grasped on) include:
  • If you see M13 (non stellar, 5.7 magnitude object) with the naked eye - your naked-eye limiting magnitude can't be 5.5 but is more likely 5.9 at least.
  • Seeing M33 with the naked eye doesn't really need "absolutely, perfectly pristine skies". It is actually quite easy to see even from Finland which isn't even remotely absolutely, perfectly pristine anything.
  • Chart 5.19 IC 10 (page 264) says "Sculptor". It probably should read "Cassiopeia".
If you want something simple and short, here it is: the book is simple (in a good way), easy to navigate and the charts are most excellent. It is well written and while some might argue the text portions are a bit on the short side, I don't find this a problem but actually a bit of a relief (after reading O'Meara). Despite my - at first - biased view of it, the book is far from bad. It is quite excellent and I would recommend it to... well every amateur astronomer out there. And good to see my friends and colleges Timo and Steve mentioned in the book as well. I'm looking forward to volume 2.

8/10 for every living soul - Recommended