Weird Astronomy: Tales of Unusual, Bizarre, and Other Hard to Explain Observations, by David A. J. Seargent. 317p. Springer 2010. $39.95. 978-1-4419-6423-6.
reviewed and © by Norman Sperling, April 26, 2012
Australian astronomy writer David Seargent knows sky-watching - a long-time amateur astronomer, he discovered a comet in 1978. He has been telling about these curiosities in a long string of articles for Southern Astronomy, which became Sky & Space magazine. He has integrated and smoothed them out well for this book. But one standard that may have been OK in the magazine grates on me! He uses exclamation points way too much!
Between exclamation points, Seargent tells these neat stories with an easy flow and a light touch. He explains things in a clear, friendly way that teaches accurately but painlessly. Collectively, they form good lessons on scientific reasoning, the importance of data quality, and understanding how the sky works. The Universe seems to show more phenomena than humans have so far commanded. The stories are very enjoyable for readers who haven't heard them before. They will certainly entertain readers interested in any science.
Seargent also inserts suggestions for projects. Every reader, from novice through expert, can find some interesting possibilities to work on.
Some items from the main chapters:
* Our Weird Moon: William Herschel noticed 3 red glowing spots on the dark part of the Moon on April 19, 1787. He thought they were erupting volcanoes, but that would have left evidence that we would now see, and we don't. Seargent points out that that very same night had intense aurora as far south as Italy, and asks if the same flow of high-energy particles hitting Earth might trigger glows on the Moon.
* Odd but Interesting Events Near the Sun, including transits and comets.
* Planetary Weirdness dwells mostly on Mars, and wonders if microbes do, too.
* Weird Meteors: Curving, zigzagging, and black meteors have been reported.
* Strange Stars and Star-Like Objects: including assorted flashes and blinks.
* Moving Mysteries and Wandering Stars: several tiny comets have been spotted close to Earth.
* Facts, Fallacies, Unusual Observations, and Other Miscellaneous Gleanings: planets and stars by daylight, the thinnest crescent Moon, odd meteorites, and the "potassium flare" star whose spectrum actually measured a smoker striking a match.
The publisher's contributions to this book aren't as good as the author's. There are several typos, though none of them interferes with understanding. While the text is printed very clearly, many of the pictures are too dark and murky, and hard to distinguish. The color pictures lack resolution. The publisher appears to have trusted a new printing technology, which seems not ready for prime time yet.
Defining any book project requires many decisions to be made. They decided this one would be "popular" rather than scholarly, so they left out all references. But this subject matter is deliberately obscure, and they give no hint as to where to chase down any item that attracts your fancy. There were many items that I could not even guess where to pursue, beyond a web-search.
But many of them I do know where to look for: Mysterious Universe by the late William R. Corliss. (Sourcebook Project, 1979). When I started wondering about those Earth-approaching comets, I checked the Corliss compendium and found 2 of Seargent's 3, plus several others, all with full quotations from the original literature. Corliss has quite a number of Seargent's phenomena. More on the personalities and places can be found in Joe Ashbrook's Astronomical Scrapbook (Cambridge University Press), a compilation of his articles in Sky & Telescope magazine. So readers have a choice: the simplest pleasure-read is Seargent's. Ashbrook's is more scholarly. Corliss reprints the original sources verbatim, retaining all the original information and flavor ... sometimes stuffy. Also, Corliss never tells how a story came out: were the observations flawed? Did they start a new paradigm? Seargent can solve scholars' problems by posting his references on a website.
As expected, Seargent finds more articles in the British heritage, Ashbrook in the American. This leads me to wonder how badly culture and language still inhibit communication. What curiosities have observers logged in other languages? Can we get those correctly translated, compiled, indexed, and entertainingly narrated? What percentage of the total do these English-language sources contain? How can readers of lots of other languages become familiar with these?
Corliss compendia cover most sciences. Seargent has now published one on meteorology. Do other sciences have corresponding light-reading books of curiosities like Seargent's or Ashbrook's?