on March 22, 2001
Robert Burnham, Jr., spent twenty years at Lowell Observatory participating in a proper motion survey. During his tenure, he wrote this mammoth 3-volume work covering nearly every object visible in 2- to 12-inch telescopes. Each chapter, covering one constellation (both northern and southern hemispheres), begins with a detailed list of all stellar objects (double stars, variable stars, and deep sky objects). Then, he delves, sometimes rather deeply, into the more significant objects of that constellation, bringing together history, philosophy, and science to describe each one. His chapter on Sagittarius, for example, includes a 25-page section on the dense portion of the Milky Way blending current 1970s science with wonderful passages from Greek and Eastern philosophies, Native American legends, and the history of science. His prose for each chapter reflects the content he covers: lyrical prose when describing the "personal" aspects of observing objects, and readable, accessible language to delineate the science behind what we know about objects in the heavens. Moreover, each chapter has photographs of many of the stars and nebulae with telescopes and cameras ranging from a 5-inch astrograph to the 200-inch Hale telescope of Palomar Observatory.
Yes, the book is thirty years old and a little out-of-date. And, the typewritten font looks homely. But that's part of its charm. Burnham initially self-published this very personal book from his kitchen table. Literally. (Astronomy magazine published a very interesting "self-interview" by Burnham in March, 1982 which provides some background on his struggles to get it published.) From a small-press run of looseleaf copies in binders, it became somewhat of a cult classic among amateurs because nothing as detailed like this had been published before. (True, T.W. Webb's "Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes" was available, but it was last published in 1917.)
I know of no other book that combines personal, reflective commentary on "mundane" objects like the Big Dipper (officially, the Ursa Major Moving Cluster), and clear, concise descriptions of variable stars, Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams, and finder charts for objects like 3C273, the brightest quasar visible to amateur-sized scopes. (Trust me: spend the 30-minutes or so tracking this last one down at a star party and you'll have a line of folks waiting to look at a faint star-like object, the light of which left 3C273 long before the earth was even formed.)
One side note: if you're interested in the rather tragic life of Burnham, search for "Sky Writer", an article by Tony Ortega, published in the Phoenix, AZ "New Times" newspaper for September 25-October 1, 1997. All readers of Celestial Handbook owe Ortega a nod for the herculean task of piecing together Burnham's life.
on July 3, 1999
Burnham is a "given" among amateur astronomers. Until quite recently there was no work other than this that contained so much useful information in one place. It's also much more than just a reference. Despite his twenty years at Lowell Observatory, Burnham seems to have remained an "amateur" in the highest sense. His love of the night sky is plainly communicated not only in his entertaining digressions into myth and poetry but also by the obvious effort he put in before the days of PC's and word processors. I began by using these books to get information on objects I already had in mind, but very quickly, the inconspicuous and the usually overlooked began to take on a "real identity" when Burnham spoke about them. The sky became immeasurably richer. Burnham died destitute in 1993. I'm in his debt. He's that wise and experienced friend standing at my side sharing what he knows.
on June 15, 2000
Robert Burnham's classic work could rightfully be called the Bible of American amateur astronomers (in Europe, the Webb Society handbooks probably earn that title). Volume 1 begins with an overview of various aspects of observational astronomy, focusing on the various cataloging and classification systems used to describe stars, nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies. The remainder of the three volumes consist of chapters for each constellation. Each chapter begins with a table that give a rundown of all objects of interest in that constellation. What follows are detailed descriptions of all notable objects in the constellation. Burnham did not confine himself to scientific facts - religion, archaeology, literature, and art all find their way into the text. Time has had a toll on the accuracy of the scientific facts that Burnham gives - many distances are wrong, and the discussions of some objects, particulaly remote or highly energetic ones, are seriously outdated. Still, these three books form the backbone of my astronomy library, and have grown battered with heavy use. They make for fascinating reading both beside the telescope and in the living room.
on March 19, 2002
Robert Burnham (NOT the former Editor of Sky and Telescope, BTW) from the 50's to the late 60's spent many years working for an observatory on the tedious project of "blink comparing" countless photographic plates. In his spare time, he made and recorded observations of thousands of the most interesting objects in the deep sky. In addition he compiled a library of observations from other great observers, as well as star lore, scientific data, and personal refleciton. The result is a hodge-podge, somewhat out of date, collection that nonethless facinates.
Thousands of objects are cataloged by constellation, and hundreds are described in detail. When arriving at an object that seems to be the most familliar of its class (M13 for globular clusters, Sirius B for white dwarfs etc,.) Burham provides an essay on that class of objects (state of the art for its time, usually the 1970s)- often including very useful cross-references to other objects in that class.
Most useful to the observer are the countless orbital charts of double stars.
These books are an addictive way to pass the time. Most of the essays on featured objects are a few pages long, and can be read in the short "in between" moments that life is filled with. For two years I had one or more volumes of this series of three books in my bathroom, so as to pass the time a bit more productively learning about the sky. Needless to say, some of my bathroom trips grew a bit lengthy as I found myself plowing through Burnham's collection of personal observations, scientific data, and historical tales.
on February 2, 2001
If I were to take a guess at the number of times I needed to consult a reference like this, I'd probably be way off - on the low side. And if I were to estimate the number of times this 3-volume set could have pulled me out of the proverbial jam, you'd probably think I was exaggerating.
There is enough information in these three handbooks to keep the average amateur astronomer busy and occupied for years. Case in point: I was recently interested in generating a list of double and multiple stars compiled by constellation. No big deal, right? Open one of the Burnham's Handbooks, and go to any constellation. For example, in Cygnus alone, there are nine pages of double and multiple stars! You say you want data? There's enough data here to lock up a water-cooled calculator. I love it!
There's only one thing I have an issue with: The pages are all done with type that's reminiscent of NCR mimeograph flyers back in the 50's. Computer generated type would have made the perfect finishing touch to an already marvelous work. I know, picky-picky.
Each volume is affordable enough to justify the purchase of the whole set. In fact, it's rather silly that they're not sold as a set in the first place. Kind of like buying an encyclopedia a piece at a time - also reminiscent of the 50's. Though each volume is alike in its presentation of information and data, they all differ in subtle ways, which even Burnham notes at the beginning of each. I find this to be neither a device nor a flaw, but interesting to note that the author took the time to explain it.
If you happen to be interested in copious amounts of data, and an abundance of information about all the objects in all the constellations, then get thee to this 3-volume set. And even if you rarely refer to it after placing it on your bookshelf, you've done a great service to your library by putting the rest of your collection in good company.
on March 19, 2011
What can be said that has not already been? First, these are not reference manuals, and were never intended to be. It alludes clearly in the first pages what they are, basically musings and interpretations on a near poetic level as to what Burnham had observed. This is what sets them apart from actual observing references. It is also what makes them unique. After all, no one redresses a poet for bad grammar, spelling or sentence structure, so why should one ridicule such a work, a labor of love, for the night sky. And to say something to the effect that they are incomplete because there is no coverage of solar system objects when the subtitle is "An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System" boarders on obtuse.
Burnham may have seemed to just throw these works together, but the fact is they are compilations of his personal notes. They took years to compile and to go back and make them "perfect" with up to date photos, coordinates and corrected collation would have resulted in two issues; They would have never been published in the first place; Been just another boring reference; And completely lost their charm. I hope that if someone tries to recompile them with up to date coordinates and easier read typeface, that the text is left exactly as it is. Change nothing. At most, replace the photos with issues with ones that are better quality. I'm on the fence about color, though.
What it comes down to is that these should be on every amateurs bookshelf because on a cloudy night you can still enjoy the night sky through the eyes of someone else.
on January 2, 2014
I was one of those scoundrels who obtained the hardbound set of Burnham's many years ago by joining the Astronomy Book Club for $3.95. I have never lived down the guilt for having done so. Did I contribute to RB's demise? Am I partly to blame that he spent his last days in abject poverty, selling pictures of cats in the park? Does it do any good now that I've purchased all three volumes again in the Kindle version, and for about the same amount it would have cost me in the 1980's had I purchased it at full price? Alas! My blood money given to Amazon doesn't make me feel any less guilty.
Having said that, however, Burnham's is surprisingly well-suited for Kindle. RB was munificent with photographs of stars and deep-sky objects in his handbook, but after all, the entire lot of pictures was medium- to low-quality black-and-white, which the Kindle adequately reproduces. And what the Kindle lacks in greyscale rendering, it more than makes up for in convenience by making the handbooks super portable. I still have my three printed volumes. I will never part with them. But I must admit that when I need them most, they are inconveniently far away at the bottom of my bookcase in another room. There's nothing like the close companionship of the Kindle, especially when it is chock full of our dear old friends such as Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Over the years I've used Burnham's like a typical reference. When I needed information about a celestial object, I'd see what RB had to say about it. But in Kindle format, I find myself actually reading the handbooks like a book. Imagine that! I feel even closer to RB when I read his meanderings on the Kindle. In fact, in the short time I've had Burnham's on my Kindle, I've read it much more than I read the printed volumes in three decades!
Burnham's is multidimensional. It's arranged sensibly. It follows a few basic conventions set forth by the author, making the thousands of pages easy to navigate. The tables of grouped objects (stars, double-stars, deep-sky star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies) in each constellation are followed by interesting and insightful descriptions and illustrations of the brightest and best. RB's passion for organization and classification was seasoned by a love of literature and sky lore, which turns an otherwise dull science tome into a delightful fireside read. It's the stuff that used to keep amateur astronomers occupied on cloudy nights. Today, there are so many online informative and interactive resources that Burnham's lies sadly like a long-forgot childhood toy, under the bed with the dust bunnies.
You can bring Burnham's back to life on your Kindle and read it for pleasure or for information. While astronomy is one of those constantly evolving sciences, there is something that will keep Burnham's around forever: the treasures of the night sky. For most of us, the path our eyes take through the universe is uncharted. We wander willy-nilly through the constellations, often not digging into them very deeply, and sometimes missing the obvious. Burnham's is a treasure map. As you fan through its pages, the glint of a galaxy or the sparkle of a star cluster will catch your eye and you'll say, "What? I didn't know there's a galaxy like that in Camelopardalis!" On your next night out with your telescope, you'll have something new to look for or take a picture of with your telescope and camera. And it doesn't matter if you can't "fan the pages" of a Kindle book. You can use the "Go To" menu and pick a random constellation. Explore it through the words, pictures, and personal experience of RB.
The history of astronomy is as fascinating as the science itself. Much of RB's text references the observations and musings of astronomers from long ago. This also makes the Celestial Handbook a classic and timeless piece of literature. It really does hold up well to the test of time. I'm probably preaching to the choir.
In short, if you are just beginning a journey to the stars, or if you veered off course a while ago and want to rekindle your interest in the wonders of astronomy, I highly recommend Burnham's. Download a free sky charting program for your PC, like "Cartes du Ciel," or use a smartphone app or planisphere to acquaint (or re-acquaint) yourself with the stars and constellations. Then put Burnham's on your Kindle, get yourself a telescope, and begin your treasure hunt in the sky.
on May 12, 2011
R. Burnham was a dedicated observer who wanted to pass along everything he knew about the deep sky. In these 3 books, he succeeded. It's an engaging, if eccentric, road trip across the night sky.
However, nobody has revised his work in a long time. This introduces a few problems. First, we live in a dynamic cosmos. If the figures for where double stars are in their orbits aren't revised, they're not very useful for observers. For instance, a pair that might've been seen as double through binoculars in his day might not be now. Second, he uses the old 1950 era coordinates, which were fine for his time, but precession's changed things, so you'd have to convert all his coordinates to the current 2000 coordinates for a go-to 'scope. Finally, he has some serious digressions in the text that could have been shifted to the front-before you get to the constellation-by-constellation stuff.
on April 11, 1999
I was impressed with these books (set of 3 volumes) the very first time I saw them.
The introduction in the first book brings a beginner up to speed on what is really happening 'out there'. For beginners and seasoned amateurs alike, it helps you to appreciate the objects in the universe, their sizes, the scale of the universe, and our place in it. They help a person to answer the question, "What do I look for?". The long introduction is both a fine tutorial, and a great review, to help one get and keep 'the big picture' in mind.
The books inculde a massive amount of detailed information on objects in every constellation. They earn their own way to a place in my library.
on June 3, 1998
I found this and the other two volumes of the 3-volume set to be chock-full of useful information about astronomy in general, especially the intro sections of volume one. Throughout the volumes each constellation is descibed in detail and with the amatuer astronomer using a small scope in mind. But...the index to all three volumes is in volume 3, while the table definitions are in volume 1 only. And all celestrial locations are based on the 1950 epoch. So it's use as a star-locator is limited, and is not for field use, IMO. Hence the low score. But the celestrial descriptions alone make this required reading for amatuer astronomer's... Just make sure you get all three volumes!!