In Praise of Amateurs


Timothy Ferris is a serious amateur astronomer. He spends a substantial amount of his time and money roaming around at night among planets and stars and galaxies. He owns a place called Rocky Hill Observatory in California where he can stargaze to his heart’s content through telescopes of modest size and excellent quality. He belongs to the international community of observers who are linked by the Internet as well as by the shared sky in which they are at home. Serious amateur astronomers, unless they are retired or independently wealthy, must have a day job to support their nocturnal addiction. Ferris has a day job as a writer of books explaining science to the general public. He has written many books which are widely read and have effectively reduced the level of scientific illiteracy of the American population.

This book is similar to the others in some respects and different in others. Like his previous books, it is factually accurate, it contains a wealth of information about the universe we live in, and it makes the information easily digestible by seasoning it with good stories. Unlike his other books, it is a love story, describing how Ferris fell in love with astronomy at the age of nine and how this passion has enriched his life ever since. But he does not write much about himself. The book is mainly a portrait gallery of the diverse and colorful characters who have shared his passion, with a description of the contributions that they have made to the science of astronomy.

Ferris has sought out his amateur astronomical colleagues, visited them in their homes and observatories, listened to their life stories, and watched them at work. One of these colleagues is Patrick Moore, who has also supported himself by writing popular science books in the daytime while exploring the sky at night. Ferris visited him in the English village of Selsey where he lives and works. Many years ago, before any human beings or human instruments had surveyed the back side of the moon from space, Moore was observing the moon systematically with his small telescope at Selsey.

The moon normally keeps a fixed orientation as it revolves around the Earth, so that only the front side is visible. But it wobbles slightly in its orbit, so that occasionally some regions that are normally invisible can be seen at the edge of the visible face, extremely foreshortened and inconspicuous. Moore was studying these normally invisible regions at a moment when the moon’s wobble was at a maximum, and discovered Mare Orientale, the biggest and most beautiful impact crater on the moon. Moore gave it the name Mare Orientale, Eastern Sea, because it is hidden behind the eastern edge of the moon and because it is a dark circular region similar to the dark regions on the front side of the moon which the amateur astronomer Johannes Hevelius called seas when he mapped them in 1647.

Hevelius was a brewer in Danzig…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.