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Atlas of the Messier Objects: Highlights of the Deep Sky

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Atlas of the Messier Objects: Highlights of the Deep Sky


Ronald Stoyan, Stephan Binnewies, and Susanne Friedrich

Klaus-Peter Schroeder, translator

Cambridge University Press, 2008 (English edition.)

Hardcover; 370 pages; $58.00US

When I first became aware of a new book devoted to the deep sky objects cataloged by Charles Messier, I was not quick to rush out and buy a copy. After all, I already owned several such works. Although I don’t usually need much of an excuse to buy a book, another book on the Messier catalog was not a priority. When I saw high praise given to the book by Sue French, Phil Harrington, and David Eicher, however, I decided to take a closer look and see for myself whether or not there was room on the over-burdened bookshelf for another volume on Messier’s catalog.

My first thought when I picked the book up was that this was going to be some heavy reading. Literally. The book weighs over five pounds and measures 12 inches by 10 inches, weight and proportions combining to make the book somewhat awkward to holding while reading. This is not a book to read in bed, at least, not without risk should you nod off in the middle of a chapter. Within a few minutes that first impression was mostly forgotten as the beauty of the book became obvious. Heavy paper stock and lavish illustration almost qualify this as a “coffee table” book. Impressed as I was by the look and feel of the book, though, I don’t buy astronomy books for purposes of display, I buy them for information content. Was this book anything but pretty?

The first seventy pages of introductory and background information answered that question. It starts with a sort of user’s guide to the book, then predictably enough discusses the life and work of Messier. All books on the “M” objects do so, but this one goes into more detail than most on the general history of astronomy in Messier’s time. The amount of information on his mentors, colleagues, and competitors – and the telescopes Messier used – provides a solid account of Messier’s life and work. It chronicles the development of the catalog itself (which is, by the way, reproduced in its entirety) and discusses the addition of objects after the last official edition was published. The section entitled “Statistics of the Messier Objects” ends up being a short course in the astrophysics of the objects found in Messier’s catalog. I do not recall seeing anything this detailed in other books on the subject. This short course prepares the reader for some of the science included in the individual object entries that follow. There is, of course, a section on how to observe the Messier objects, which includes very useful information on how they are affected by light pollution. There’s even a brief coverage of the ever popular Messier Marathon, and a couple of pages offering recommendations to imagers. By the time I reach the atlas portion of the book I had lost most of the buyer’s remorse that initially accompanied the purchase of “another” (and not exactly inexpensive) Messier book.

Each object in the Messier catalog has its own well illustrated entry that begins with basic facts and figures (location, distance, magnitude, surface brightness when appropriate, etc). The discovery history of each object follows, giving a look at how Messier, among others, interpreted these objects, using their own words. Messier did not discover all of the objects in his catalog, and the material on observational history makes it clear who found them, and when. A short essay on the most recent science available regarding each object comes next. These astrophysics essays do not shy away from technical jargon. The basic astrophysics from earlier in the book, combined with the glossary at the end, help to make this material quite accessible. The remainder of each entry is a discussion of observing the objects through various apertures, starting with the naked eye and going up to telescopes of 14 to 20 inches. Detailed descriptions of the eyepiece view tend to dwell on the views through larger apertures.

The images illustrating the objects are some of the best I have seen. This book could easily have become a collection of “eye candy” if the accompanying text had not been so well written and organized. The most obvious illustrations are the astrophotos that dominate each entry. A few of these are from the Hubble Space Telescope or professional observatories, but the overwhelming majority have been taken by amateur astronomers, making the book a showcase for the work of astro imagers. Some of these images are also reproduced in an inverted (black and white) format to better illustrate certain structures and features of their subjects. Double and variable stars in clusters, as well as other objects likely to be found in the field of view, are labeled for easy location by observers. Where these are numerous, a table lists them for easy reference. In addition to these stunningly beautiful illustrations are sketches made by the principle author at the eyepiece of a 14” reflector, and these illustrations give the reader a clear idea of the differences between images and the eyepiece experience. Illustration of the book goes a step farther by reproducing many sketches made during historic observations by the likes of Lord Rosse and John Herschel.

While the translation from German is very good indeed, there a few oddities that American readers (at least) will probably notice. The most obvious to me was avoidance of the word “billion,” a designation apparently not commonly used by European authors. Instead, large numbers are described in terms of thousands of millions. The numeric values expressed in this fashion are perfectly accurate, but seem a little strange and cumbersome. There are also some editorial oddities such as arbitrary hyphenation of words at the edges of columns, without regard for the structure of the word. Numbers that start sentences are not spelled out, but printed simply as numbers. It gets the job done, of course, but looked a little odd to my eyes. Messier 30 is first described in its entry as an open cluster, which is not correct; it is a globular cluster. This was the only blatant editorial blunder I spotted.

This book does not include star charts or finder charts for the individual objects. It was decided by the authors (or editors) that enough charts and atlases exist in print to make the inclusion of charts redundant. Since the shape and weight of the book make it too unwieldy to use by the eyepiece, this seems to me to be a moot point. The space that might have been used for charts is put to other uses. Other readers will no doubt see the book as incomplete for this same reason. Also absent is the annoying general introduction to astronomy gear so many publishers insist on including in otherwise specialized books, an absence I find refreshing.

Since I already own other books on the subject, it seemed only natural to sit down and compare them. I pulled out the two Messier books I use most often for this purpose: Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects by Stephen James O'Meara and The Next Step: Finding and Viewing Messier's Objects by Ken Graun. It was immediately obvious that both of these – especially Graun’s book – are more usable scope-side, being less awkward to hold. (By the way, none of the three is dew-proof, something that should be considered when bringing books out with you to an observing session.) All three books discuss the life and times of Messier, although O’Meara’s book provides little more than a brief biographical sketch (contributed by David Levy). Graun and Stoyan et al provide far more complete counts, as complete as can be without devoting the entire book to biography. Atlas of the Messier Objects goes into a bit more detail than The Next Step and to me the former work seems a bit better edited (to say nothing about illustrated) than the latter, but they are otherwise comparable in information content. The Next Step barely touches astrophysics. DSC: The Messier Objects provides more of such information, but neither even comes close to the content included in Atlas of the Messier Objects, which makes the subject a main theme throughout the volume, down to citing the references used. When it comes to actually making observations, however, Atlas of the Messier Objects struck me as less useful than the other two books. Although Atlas of the Messier Objects earns a point by directing the reader’s attention to individual features to be found in (and near) Messier objects, I find O’Meara’s descriptions more accessible to users of modest instruments. Neither book can touch The Next Step when it comes to finding and identifying Messier objects.

Such comparisons are, of course, largely subjective, and each of these books can make a contribution to an observer’s understanding and enjoyment of Messier’s catalog of deep sky objects. Although too cumbersome for a scope-side reference, Atlas of the Messier Objects compliments the others nicely by providing a more detailed and up-to-date treatment of the Messier objects as items of scientific interest. I like to know what I’m looking at, and Atlas of the Messier Objects really delivers the goods in this regard. It’s a visual treat into the bargain, adding a dimension of sheer enjoyment usually lacking in such books. Atlas of the Messier Objects has quickly become an important reference that effectively supplements the existing material in my Messier library. It is, indeed, worthy of a place on the over-burdened bookshelf.


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