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365 Starry Nights : An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year Paperback – January 30, 1990

ISBN-13: 978-0671766061 ISBN-10: 0671766066 Edition: Reissue

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reissue edition (January 30, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671766066
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671766061
  • Product Dimensions: 10.9 x 8.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #328,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Chet Raymo is the author of The Soul of the Night and Honey from the Rock. He is a professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1



The map at the left shows all of the stars we will study during January -- and more. To find them in the sky, it is best to start with Orion, one of the most conspicuous constellations. The stars of Orion vividly suggest the mythological figure they are supposed to represent -- a bold hunter armed with a club and sword and faced by a charging bull. To observe Orion, find a place where you have a clear view of the sky. Turn so that you are facing south. During the evening hours this month you will find Orion about halfway up from the horizon to the zenith. The zenith is the point in the sky directly above your head. The most striking feature of the constellation is the alignment of three equally bright stars in the hunter's belt. If you are looking in the fight direction you can't miss it. As you stand facing giant Orion, the glittering yellow star almost directly over your head is Capella in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Capella, with Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull, Rigel in Orion, Sirius and Procyon in the Big and Little Dogs, and the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, make up the Winter Hexagon. Betelgeuse, the brilliant red star in the arm of Orion, is near the center of the Hexagon. In January and February we will look closely at each of these stars and constellations in turn.


Once you have found and learned the stars of Orion's belt, you will never again have trouble recognizing this constellation. Look also for the bright stars of the shoulders and feet and the fainter stars of the head and sword. Orion rises in the early evening at the beginning of December and dominates the sky all winter long. The hunter's stars, which include two of the brightest in the heavens, outshine those of any other constellation. Because Orion stands above the earth's equator, it is visible from every inhabited place on earth. All human cultures in every time and place have given special note in story and myth to this wonderful array of stars. Sailors of old feared the sight of Orion, for his appearance on the eastern horizon forecast stormy winter weather. But the hunter has also long been associated in myth with the forces of goodness and light, and as such we welcome his appearance as a promise of sparkling starry nights to come.


It is important to acquire early a sense of your own place under the stars. Orion's belt will help. Point to the place on your horizon that is due east of your observing location (a map of your town will help you find the approximate compass points -- later you will use the stars). Now swing your arm up in an arc through the stars of Orion's belt, and on to the point on your horizon that is due west. You have traced out the sky's equator, or celestial equator. The celestial equator is the imaginary line among the stars that lies directly above the equator of the earth.


It is convenient to imagine, as the ancients believed, that all of the stars lie on one great skysphere that surrounds and encloses the earth. We call this imaginary sphere the celestial sphere. In fact, as we know, the stars are distributed in space at different distances from earth, and there is no "sky-sphere." The three stars of Orion's belt, however, do lie at about the same distance from the earth and are therefore part of a true cluster. Like many of the stars, the stars of the belt have Arabic names. These names derive from the time of Europe's "Dark Ages" when the Arabs were the keepers and developers of ancient Greek astronomy. When Europeans rediscovered astronomy during the late Middle Ages, it was often by way of Arabic translations of the Greek texts. Mintaka (MIN-tack-a) means "belt." Alnitak (Al-NYE-tack) also means "the belt." The meaning of Alnilam (Al-NILE-am) is less dear but is possibly "the belt of pearls," a beautiful name for this string of dazzling stars. As we go along, you may begin to wonder why so many star names begin with "Al-." The answer is a simple one. "Al-" is the Arabic prefix which means "the."


We require a convenient way to describe the positions of the stars on the celestial sphere. This is accomplished through the use of an angular method of measurement, with the vertex of the measured angle at the eye of the observer. The full circle of the sky, all the way around the earth, is 360 degrees (360°). The angle from horizon to horizon passing over your head is 180°, and the angle from the horizon to the zenith is 90°. If you stretch your arm out in front of you and sight along it with one eye, the angle between the tips of your spread fingers is about 15°. This is the width of the constellation Orion. It should take about six handspans to measure the distance from the horizon to the zenith. Try it and see how closely your hand and arm fit the rule.


Our custom of dividing a circle into 360° derives from ancient Babylonian astronomy. As seen from the earth, the sun appears to make a full circuit of the sky in a little over 365 days (see Jan. 8). A degree, then, as defined by the Babylonians, was about the distance the sun moved each day with respect to the background of stars. The three little stars of Orion's head occupy a circle of about 1° diameter. The angular size of the moon against the sky is 1/2°, or about half the width of your little finger held at arm's length. The moon would therefore fit nicely between the three stars of Orion's head. If you look for these stars on a clear night you might have the impression that the moon is much larger than the space they enclose. Hold out your little finger against these stars and then against the moon, and you will discover that the moon is smaller than you think. Some other useful guides for measuring angles in the sky are shown at the right.


The earth turns on its axis under the stars once every 24 hours, and carries us around as it goes. The stars remain fixed in the deeps of space. The earth turns west to east on its axis. As a result, the stars -- with sun, moon, and planets -- seem to move from east to west, making one full circuit around the earth each day. Like the sun and moon, the stars of Orion rise in the east and set in the west about 12 hours later. If you watch Orion throughout the evening, you will see him move one handspan (15°) toward the west each hour. In 24 hours, Orion will set in the west, pass beneath the earth, and rise again from the east to regain his present position. The illusion that it is the stars, not us, which move is very powerful. The earth is near at hand and seems massive and stationary compared to the apparently tiny celestial objects. Only since the brilliant theoretical work of Nicholas Copernicus in the 16th century have we come to recognize that the "turning" of the stars is actually the turning of the earth.


In addition to a daily spin on its axis, the earth makes a great annual journey around the sun. Since the stars we see at night are those on the side of the earth opposite the sun, the evening sky changes as our vantage point changes. As the earth carries the observer eastward around the sun, the stars seem to move night by night toward the west at a rate of about 1° per day. In 6 months' time, looking out into space from the other side of the sun, we shall find other stars in our starry night.


The stars do not appear equally bright in the sky. This is due to two things: (1) the stars are at different distances from the earth, and (2) the stars are not all of the same intrinsic brightness. The scale that is used to describe the brightness of stars as they appear to earth observers is called the scale of apparent magnitude. The scale was invented by the astronomer Hipparchus who lived and worked in the city of Alexandria 2100 years ago. The brightest stars in the sky, like Rigel and Betelgeuse in Orion, Hipparchus called stars of the first magnitude. The faintest stars he could see, he called sixth-magnitude stars. To other stars he assigned appropriate magnitudes between these limits. Thousands of years later we still use Hipparchus' scale of apparent brightness, although it has of course been made quantitatively more exact. Hipparchus was one of several great astronomers of the ancient world who was associated with the city of Alexandria.


The exact modem magnitudes of the stars of Orion are shown above. If you live near city lights you will not see stars less bright than about the fourth magnitude, or no more than several hundred stars at any one time. If you live where the sky is very dark, on a clear night you might see several thousand stars down to the sixth magnitude. The stars of Orion's head are about the fourth magnitude and are a good test of the quality of the night. Of course, with binoculars or a telescope, you can see many more stars than could be seen by Hipparchus, even on dark Alexandrian nights unmarred by atmospheric pollution or electric lights. With the invention of the telescope it was necessary to extend the scale of apparent magnitude to encompass stars less bright than the sixth magnitude (see Oct. 25-28). At the other end of the scale, a few stars in the sky -- Sirius, Canopus, Alpha Centauri, and Arctutus -- have been assigned negative magnitudes on the modem scale.


Just below the star Alnitak in Orion's belt is one of the most famous objects in the sky. The Horsehead Nebula is a dark cloud of dust and gas silhouetted against a brighter region of glowing interstellar gas heated to incandescence by the energy of the many stars embedded within it. The Horsehead takes its name from its shape. The size of this dark cloud is almost too great to imagine. A billion solar systems would fit neatly inside, and the Horsehead is just a wisp of a much larger ...

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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I'd recommend this book to beginners to experts alike!!
Crystal K
Not so much a book to be taken outside for use as a star reference as one which turns the night sky into a beautiful story.
J. Hogan
Chet Raymo imbues this delightful book with reverence, understanding, wonder, joy, science, and legend all at once.
Eric N. Went

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

147 of 149 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 14, 1999
Format: Paperback
Chet Raymo takes a Reader's Digest approach to Astronomy and presents the wonders of the universe in an enjoyable and easy to read manner. The book is divided into 365 segments to give a clear picture of the sky every night of the year. This is an Excellent book to learn the sky and constellations. The main focus of the book is naked eye astronomy, but would also be useful for binocular and small telescope observers. The book is full of hundreds of charts, drawings, and maps that help in explaining the night sky. Rather than sitting down and reading this book from cover to cover, I enjoy reading this book throughout the year. 365 Starry Nights would be a good book for a beginner astronomer, or anyone who enjoys the night skies.
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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 12, 1998
Format: Paperback
This lovely book is for all of the folks who swear that one picture is worth a thousand words. The beautiful, romantic illustrations make it possible for novices to easily discern what stars are in their sky on whatever day of the year it happens to be. My husband and I have enjoyed our book for ten years. Whenever we look skyward on a clear and brilliant night, we open our book to the exact day and month that it happens to be. We find wonderful drawings and lots of information about stars that are in our sky. We can see explicit pictures that diagram the constellations of the night. This book shows us the stars that we will soon be able find on the horizon and the ones that will be over our heads when we turn off our porch light and step outside. The stories of the ancient myths are compelling. The science of astronomy is infused gently by the author and the readers absorb it as if it were by osmosis.
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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful By T.J. VINE VOICE on January 8, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I purchased this book with the hopes of getting into binocular astronomy. I realize that binocular astronomy is great, but you need more than this book. It contains good information, however, it's a bit elementary in many places. For example, one entry talks about how it's the earth that spins and not the stars, and that was it. It seems like the book covers a topic that would normally take up 2 pages of text and breaks it up into 5 starry nights. What that means is that topics continue from one day to the next, forcing you to read onward (and depending on where you jump in....backwards too). It does give great illustrations of the constellations as far as giving you a picture of what Orion would look if he were a person. It also covers some mythology about the constellations, and that makes for interesting reading. There are no star charts in this book. At best it's hand drawn stars, so purchasing a star chart is a definite plus. You can pick one up for about 10 bucks. Since the book is broken up into 365 days, its organization is a bit frustrating. For example, if you want to look at nebulas, you open the contents of the book and see that all that's listed is January...page 1, February...page 19...etc... The glossary provides some help, but doesn't even list what a nebula is, so it's VERY limited (2 pages) (On some items it references you back to pages in the book). However, on the good parts of this book. It's written so that a child can understand it, so if you're older than 10, you'll get the concept. I would suggest purchasing an additional book as a companion to this book. It's contains good info, but you're a little at the mercy of the book due to the organization of it. If you have young children, this would be an excellent book to take out with you and learn together. It's good for adults too, but is just elementary. I guess depending on the person and your purpose, that can be good, or that can be bad.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 31, 1998
Format: Paperback
This book is an excellent source for learning sky and the constellations on a month by month basis. Includes some interesting history of astronomy, including some of the authors own thoughts on why certain constellations have taken on their historical and existing configurations. Locates some easy and some hard objects. I used it for binocular viewing before I bought my large telescope. Still use it every week. This book is a must for astronomers and star gazers.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Walter Dzierga on December 17, 1999
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a book that's hard to put down. You can always read the entry for today, but if you're like me you won't be able to resist opening to random days and learning about the science, history, and mythology surronding the stars and constellations. Can't say enough about this book.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Eric N. Went on March 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
I love it! Chet Raymo imbues this delightful book with reverence, understanding, wonder, joy, science, and legend all at once. He guides you through the sky night by night, acquainting you with the major constellations and pointing out objects of beauty, interest, and mystery throughout. Best of all, he confines himself to subjects you can see with the naked eye or a very modest telescope; he never sets you up for disappointment by taunting you with things you'd need a huge telescope and infinite patience to see, and wouldn't believe you'd found even then. Raymo's artwork reflects his love of the sky, drawing as much from history, mythology, and imagination as from science. Nevertheless, he also lucidly presents science that's missing from hordes of more pretentious books. I defy anyone who's curious about astronomy to read this book and not be infected by Raymo's enthusiasm.
To me, "365 Starry Nights" reflects the same spirit as Robert Burnham's timeless "Celestial Handbook," while addressing an audience daunted by the prospect of 2,100 pages. For readers caught between H. A. Rey's brilliant "Where the Stars Are" and Burnham's magnum opus, "365 Starry Nights" has no equal. If it had an index, it would be perfect.
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