Archive for the ‘Amateur Astronomy’ Category

Hot August Night   Leave a comment

Astronomical Observations Made On 25 August 2019

I don’t often experience clear nights during the Sonoran Desert summer. This is our season for thunderstorms, when moisture pushes into the region from the south and the east, and clouds rise high and white over the desert. The debris clouds left from these storms, whether I see a drop of rain where I live or not, often make stargazing a moot point. Some summers are stormier than others, and for lovers of the “desert monsoon,” a group that includes me, the summer of 2019 has been a disappointment. Storms have been less than frequent where I live, but energetic enough elsewhere to send clouds over my location all the same. The daytime temperatures have often soared to near record highs, and as a result, evenings have also remained uncomfortably warm long after sunset. I have this thing against sweating onto an eyepiece. Those things are enough trouble to keep clean as it is.

The night of August 25th, 2019, however, was clear and somewhat cooler than those before it. Only a few degrees, actually, but the chance to explore summer constellations was enough to motivate me. The seeing conditions, oddly enough, were predicted to be very good, rather unusual for the season. That news added another bit of motivation. So I decided to fire up the Thermacell mosquito repeller, set up the Old Scope (the 60mm refractor I’ve used since my teens), and see what I could see before heat stroke set in.

Double stars and the moon are the best objects to view with an instrument of the Old Scope’s type and size. Since the moon was not above the horizon while I was out there, double stars made up the majority of my observations on this hot August night. They are particularly rewarding, regardless of the telescope you use, when you work under light-polluted suburban skies. Bright points of light stand out better under such conditions than, say, a ghostly nebula or a distant galaxy. The book that got me started as a serious observer (Field Book of the Skies by William Tyler Olcott) was written at a time when the study of double star systems was cutting-edge astronomy, and most commercially available telescopes were between 60mm and 90mm in size. (Size in this case refers to the aperture or diameter of the lens at the front end of the telescope.) As a result of that combination of then-current interest and available instruments, that book was essentially a guide to double stars, and because I relied on Olcott’s field book, that’s what I observed back then. My interest in double stars has never faded.

It was a quiet night, with no breeze and a clear, calm sky. Normally I find a breeze inconvenient; it flips pages on star atlases and – when strong enough – shakes the telescope.  However, I would have been more forgiving of moving air, any moving air, on such a warm and muggy night. No such luck. It was so quiet I could hear the Thermacell unit softly hissing away as it heated the repellent-soaked pad that drove off mosquitoes. I rely on that device during mosquito season. Without it sending its chemical signals that baffle and repel the little blood-suckers, I’d need long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I’d be seriously over-dressed for a night during which the temperature was likely to remain above 90°F, which was the case this time.

It was, in fact, rather too warm for my liking, regardless of manner of dress, and I honestly wondered why I was bothering. And then I put gamma Delphinus in the eyepiece.

This star is in a summer constellation that actually looks a bit like its name – a dolphin. Both components of the double star were easy to see, and gamma Delphinus was worth the sweat. When observing double stars, the brightest of the pair (assuming a difference) is generally labeled “A” and is referred to as primary, while the secondary is usually labeled “B.” It can actually get a lot more complicated than that – but not this time. The two stars in this case are quite close together, and needed a fair bit of magnification to split them (separate to them completely). At that magnification I was also able to see their colors. The primary (A) star was pale yellow, and the companion (B) was an equally quiet shade of blue. The difference in magnitude was subtle, about half a magnitude, but was visible. The sight of these two softly colored gems against the dark sky made me glad I’d bothered.

Another star on my list was a jewel of the Dolphin as well. Alpha Delphinus has a companion too faint for the Old Scope to pick up, but when I was a teenager I very likely didn’t realize this, and would have looked. I’ve recently been revisiting stars that I would have looked at back then, using the same old telescope as before, so since it was on the list I would have used then, I looked at it on this night. Alpha Delphinus was another gem, this one bright and white with a hint of blue in it. It’s a simple sort of beauty, the light of a distant star, and irresistible.

The hot and sweaty night grew older but no cooler, and the stars moved slowly east to west overhead. The planets Jupiter and Saturn were bright and easy to find over the roof of the house, but the heat shimmer from the roof made observing them a waste of time. They looked for all the world as if they were under water.

While star hopping, I found myself in the vicinity of an object labeled on the charts as M 15, a dense gathering of stars called a globular star cluster. I’ve seen this thing with a larger telescope and been amazed by the sight. What amazed me this night, using the Old Scope, was that I could see it at all. The gray patch of light that seemed to fade gradually into the night sky around it may not have been visually impressive, but seeing it with such a small telescope in a relatively bright sky was a pleasant surprise. You just never know, so you might as well try. And doesn’t that just sound like a life lesson?

I split several double stars in Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Pegasus (the Winged Horse of myth), and Andromeda. Of them all, the most noteworthy was gamma Andromedae. It was a tight pair of stars, as viewed with the Old Scope, and displayed more conspicuous colors than gamma Delphinus. The brighter of the two, in this case, was a clear golden hue; its companion was a gleaming blue. I keep calling these stars gemlike, but in truth, there are no gems on this Earth of ours that can compare. If you ever have the opportunity to look at such a sight through a telescope, be sure to take it. I think you will agree with me on the subject of the beauty to be seen in starlight.

The Stars I’m Under: Observations of the Night Sky   Leave a comment

“I got into science fiction by being interested in astronomy first.”  – Terry Pratchett

When I first opened this weblog, it was my intention to include far more astronomical content than I’ve managed so far. The main reason for this not working out until now has been a dearth of observations to report. Until a few months ago the time and energy needed to be out under those desert stars was in short supply.

I resumed amateur astronomy activities in 2003, after a long hiatus, and did so for some less than straightforward reasons. On the surface, it simply seemed that the time had come. That’s true, as far as it goes. I’ve always looked back fondly on that episode in my life, when as a teenager I spent so many hours under dark, rural skies with a small telescope (a 60mm refractor). The desire to revive this pastime remained with me for many years, until at long last, in ’03, I found that I had the resources, and could afford a good telescope of respectable aperture. I lived in a city with enough light pollution ordinances that visual observing would be worth the expense of time and money. The time had come indeed, and the time was right. (The details of how this all came about are to be found in my book Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession.)

But there was was more to it than that, a matter that I did not include in the above-mentioned book. After almost twenty-five years of admittedly sporadic attempts to be published as a writer of fiction, I’d given it up. The indie publishing revolution had not yet developed, and I was heartily sick of rejection slips. So, I quit. Since so much of my life had been shaped around writing, I was a bit untethered, and astronomy proved to be just the thing to fill the gap. Long story short (see The Process, chapter ten), while astronomy provided the necessary outlet for a while, in the long run it wasn’t enough. I needed to tell stories, and holding back from that proved unhealthy. Fortunately, before things became too serious, publishing directly to ebook and print-on-demand gave me the outlet I needed, and I started writing fiction again.

It was like pulling a cork out of a badly rattled bottle of sparkling wine. Words burst forth, forming books and short stories that seemed eager to see the light of day. A couple of the books were even astronomy-related. The release of pent-up creative energy took several years to settle down from a flood to a steady flow. But although astronomy didn’t fade back completely into hiatus status, I was far more interested in spending the time I had outside the day job writing than peering into an eyepiece. And even when evenings were so clear and mild that they seemed to call me out under the stars, I seldom had the energy left over to set up even that 60mm refractor, which has remained with me since high school.

A dozen publications later, and with the need for a day job behind me, I find myself looking at things in yet another new way. The need has asserted itself for a life that balances energy aimed at writing and producing new fiction, with a different sort of need, that of a craving for dark skies and the light of the moon and stars. Writing is a more relaxed activity now, no longer crammed into whatever time I have after coming home from an office. I don’t finish the days as worn out as I once did. I still have a job, you see, but a job you love doing is far less taxing, and there’s often energy left after a day’s work to set up a telescope and observe celestial sights deep into the night.

And so, belatedly, I’ve begun to develop this aspect of the weblog. I will still write about books and writing, with more commentary on winners of past Hugo Awards. I will also use this weblog to help keep you up to date on new books and stories as they become available. In addition to all that, I will now invite you to join me from time to time under the peace and quiet of the night sky. There will be regular posts about what it’s like out there, and those posts will include a list of celestial sights. The idea is to give you a sense for the experience of stargazing, without boring non-astronomers with the details. The details, for those who are interested, will be found archived on the Amateur Astronomy page of this site.

This is all very much “under construction,” and how I proceed may change as I move forward. So please pardon the stardust underfoot while I work.

Book Five and the End of the Beginning – Part One   2 comments

It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.

In early 2011, following certain revelations regarding an alleged revolution in self-publishing, I pulled an old manuscript out of an overstuffed file cabinet. The title of the book was The Way of Leyra’an. It was the first and only novel I’d written since completing a long-delayed B.S. in plant biology in 1998. Before my return to academia I’d written half a dozen novels (and rewritten all of them at least once), and enough short stories and magazine articles that I can no long remember the count. I’d sold some of the nonfiction, but not a single novel or short story. The sort of fall-back work I’d been doing while writing was wearing me out physically, so I went back to school to increase my range of options. As soon as the degree was done, I went back to writing fiction. Although it was easily the best thing I’d written to that point in my life, by that day in 2011 The Way of Leyra’an had spent the better part of a decade in that cabinet, and came very near to being my last work of fiction.

The first publisher to see it rejected it. This came as no surprise, since the odds are overwhelmingly against any given publisher saying “yes.” The rejection letter intrigued me, however, and encouraged me. It wasn’t a boilerplate response with a hastily scribbled signature at the bottom. It was an expression of regret. The editor liked the book! Unfortunately, he didn’t believe his company could find a viable market for it. They already had too much of that type of story in the pipeline. Bad luck regarding the marketability, but at least he liked the book! So I bundled The Way of Leyra’an up and sent it to the next publisher on my short list of those still accepting un-agented manuscripts – a list that has grown steadily shorter in the years that followed, or so I’m told. I waited and went about my business – working on student loans and getting accustomed to mortgage payments – and lo and behold, there came another rejection letter. It said essentially the same thing. Third time’s the charm, so they say. Whoever “they” are, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. The book bounced that time, too, with essentially the same letter coming along for the ride.

The message seemed clear – I needed to be better than every other aspiring writer, luckier than the rest, and have the psychic power to see into the future and avoid writing books that would be unmarketable by the time I finished them.

Knocked down three times, get up four, some would say. Persistence is easy to preach, but by that time I’d been knocked down and around by rejection letters for more than twenty years. I’d had enough. I didn’t send it out a fourth time. I packed it away, closed work-in-progress files on my computer, and quit. It was time to find other ways to spend my time when I wasn’t busy working to pay off those debts.

The consequences of this decision were not immediately apparent. In fact, for a few years it felt like I’d recovered from a long illness. I spent more time in the garden and returned to the world of amateur astronomy. The latter in particular soaked up a lot of creative energy, and the time I’d originally devoted to writing. It was (and is) an immensely enjoyable and rewarding hobby. But the feeling of emancipation didn’t last. At some point in 2007 I became aware that my basic attitude toward life had shifted in the wrong direction. I was more sarcastic and cynical, and more likely to see the negative side of things. A comment from my wife started the process of realizing I was headed for trouble. She said that I didn’t laugh as much as I used to, her way of asking what was wrong without making a complaint of it. Given the amount of humor that was a hallmark of our relationship, I was baffled and unsettled by the question – and I didn’t see it her way, which represented a hefty dose of denial on my part. Then I started to have the nightmare. It was a dark dream that repeated along variations on a theme, the central element being that I had gotten myself lost and, for some reason this was worse, couldn’t come up with a reason for being there. What purpose did it serve, I’d ask myself. And the answer would come: “None.” I’d then be seized by chest pains that lingered when I woke up in a cold sweat, leaving me to wonder if this time the heart attack was for real. It was never real. It was frightening nonetheless, and as the frequency of the nightmare increased, it started to wear me down.

That sense of being without direction or purpose was corrosive. I wasn’t as much fun to be with or work with, and I lost any sense that the work I was doing was worth anything or was going to take me anywhere I wanted or needed to go. I was considering asking my doctor to refer me to someone qualified to throw me a lifeline. Depression? No doubt about that. Nothing made much sense, fewer and fewer things seemed worth doing, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Oh, life wasn’t uniformly bleak. There were good times that diverted me and provided some relief, but more and more often, especially in winter, I would awaken to a black mood and the firm conviction that none of this was worth a damn.

All the while, Amazon and its Kindle e-reader were turning the world of writing and publishing upside down. I’d heard of the Kindle; being book-oriented regardless of what else was going on, I could hardly miss it. I remember my amazement the first time I saw and held one. There’d been e-readers before, but they were big, clunky disasters. This thing was like a gadget out of Star Trek. I was fascinated, and I immediately wanted one, but I had no clue regarding the effect it was having on the world at large. So I couldn’t have predicted how e-books would ultimately influence my life.

That changed when my wife and I had lunch with a couple I’ve known for quite a few years, one of whom had recently published her first novel with a small press outfit. Over lunch this friend mentioned her plan to self-publish her next book. I’m afraid my mind translated “self-publish” into “vanity press,” since the two had been nearly synonymous for many years. I tried not to react openly to this, but she knew what I was thinking – it was such a predictable reaction. The explanation that followed acquainted me with e-book direct publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, developments that had passed me by because I’d stopped paying much attention to the publishing world. It sounded way too good to be true, but I looked into it anyway. What I learned sounded promising, and next time we were with these friends I said as much. The suggestion was made then that I pull out an “old” manuscript and try self-publishing it to see what would happen. Of course, I pulled out my most recent attempt, The Way of Leyra’an.

What came next will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

A Slice of Sky   Leave a comment

For all my good intentions, I still don’t go out stargazing as often as I did in the years before I launched into self-publishing. It’s hard to justify spending time on a hobby when there are so many stories trying to claw their way out of my head. But the night sky can be insistent, and the urge can become overwhelming. A few days ago it became irresistible.

It was a clear evening, typical of the desert in springtime. The constellations of winter, Orion most prominent among them, were low in the west and slipping away. Sirius blazed and glittered in the southwest. Gemini was high in the west, and Leo was straight overhead with Jupiter just within reach of his paws. The arrangement of planet and constellation brought to mind a kitten chasing a toy, a strange fate for the King of Planets. Rising in the east were the constellations of spring and early summer. Boötes was almost horizontal, as if not quite ready to rise and shine from a long seasonal sleep. The Big Dipper was high in the northeast, and the North Star was, well, where you always find it. Plenty to choose from, in terms of targets, even with the narrow bit of sky I can see from the backyard these days.

In 2003, when I bought the new telescope and began to re-educate myself in the art and science of visual astronomy, setting up on the back porch was a workable option. I lost some of the north and northwest sky to the mesquites growing in the back yard, but there were only a handful of constellations I couldn’t reach. In the years since, the trees have responded to our care by doing what trees do best – growing. Twelve years later, setting up on the back porch leaves me with somewhat limited observing options, which has regrettably discouraged me from observing from home base. That night I was reminded that even a narrow slice of an infinite universe is a busy place.

Using a four-inch refractor under moderately light-polluted skies requires careful target selection. No galaxy hopping this time ‘round; I needed bright lights in the night sky. I went for familiar double stars and spent a lot of time looking at Venus and Jupiter. It was a cool, quiet evening that started out a bit windy, but settled to mere whispers of a breeze. The atmosphere was fairly steady, what astronomers call “good seeing.” The twinkling of stars that you sometimes see, famed in song and nursery rhyme, is actually a bad thing for stargazers. If I’d been able to look up that night and honestly recite “twinkle twinkle, little star,” I’d have gone back in to work on the next book. That didn’t happen, so I gazed the evening away, and was satisfied the time was well spent. If you’re at all moved by the sight of stars, just being out on a clear night will do it for you. I spent as much time seated and looking up, eyes alone, as I did at the eyepiece, relaxed and unworried for a while by recent events.

The Muse, however, is never silent, and for all that I focused my attention on Castor and Pollux, Mizar and Alcor, and the moons of Jupiter, the current work in progress was ever present. Bits of dialogue crept into my thoughts. An idea for resolving a plot wrinkle came to mind. Notes for the book appeared among the observing notes regarding the ruddy gold double star in Leo designated Gamma Leonis. The Muse nudged, but it was gently done, for a change, something always there, but otherwise leaving me at peace under that slice of the night sky. A fact of life, if you’re a writer. It never really stops. I felt no conflict between writing and stargazing as this went on, and that’s likely because amateur astronomy is such a blend of knowledge and imagination. Objects in the night sky are utterly beyond my grasp, and so I can only look at them with my eyes or a telescope, touching them with my thoughts alone. I consider what I’ve read about these things, about how long a star in a double system takes to orbit its companion, about the stars being born in that patch of light beneath Orion’s belt, and they assume a reality of sorts for all that they are far beyond my physical reach.

Telling a tale is much the same thing. The worlds I’ve invented are as unreachable, in their way, as the stars. They are built of knowledge and imagination, but they are real in my imagination, as real as the Orion nebula, because I have what I need, through a lifetime of reading and living, to make them seem tangible. And so it seems perfectly natural that, as I look up at the stars, I take their measure even as I imagine people living out there and having adventures. Stars and stories go together and always have, and I am hardly the first to be moved to tell tales while seated beneath them.

The Little Book That Could   1 comment

It’s a milestone. It’s also something that was quite likely inevitable, and in time may well become permanent. Now that it’s come, however, I find myself with mixed feelings about it.

Mr. Olcott’s Skies: An Old Book and a Youthful Obsession is no longer my number one seller. My novel The Luck of Han’anga has overtaken it. It’s by just a couple of copies, for the moment, but I’m so accustomed to the memoir outselling the first book of the sci-fi series that the realization that this is no longer the case feels rather odd.

Before any thought of self-published ever occurred to me, I gathered together material to use as a series of astronomy-related essays, intended for posting on the Cloudy Nights amateur astronomy forum. The project was never completed. As I was cleaning up the novel that eventually became The Luck of Han’anga, I realized that I had enough of this material to publish a small book of early astronomy memories. Doing so would provide valuable experience, and if I screwed up I would do so on a relatively small stage. Damage control, it seemed, would be easy, from what I knew of such things at that time. So when I turned The Luck of Han’anga over to beta readers, I began to work on the memoir in earnest, with the idea of using it as a sort of experiment, or a toe stuck in the proverbial waters. During the writing, it took on a life of its own, becoming much more than a test. On March 21st, 2011, I uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Press and Smashwords. It was quite the learning experience, indeed, and it did smooth the way for The Luck of Han’anga, which followed in June of that same year. By then, I’d seen a gratifying number of copies of the memoir sold, but fully expected the novel to go past the memoir in fairly short order.

That’s not what happened. Instead, the memoir sold steadily, and maintained the lead its head start gave it over the novel. It even held on to that lead when the next two novels were released, driving sales of the first novel in the series. Feedback from readers, along the way, both surprised me and helped explain what was happening. This little “experiment” was selling outside the intended niche market. While most of those who discovered Mr. Olcott’s Skies were in fact fellow amateur astronomers, a fair number had no such interests. Some of the non-astronomers were people who had encountered me in various social media venues. Others I can’t account for so easily. Either way, a couple of bucks – for the eBook version – apparently sounded like a small price to pay to satisfy their curiosity, so they gave it a try and found themselves reading a book that reminded them of quieter times in their own lives. It’s a book that apparently takes readers back to memories of their own childhood adventures. To say that this is gratifying would be an understatement.

For more than two years, Mr. Olcott’s Skies led the pack. A small slice of life set in words, an attempt to learn self-publishing, aimed at a niche market and going happily wide of that mark, this little experiment has been one of the real joys of my self-published journey. In our household it came to be known as The Little Book That Could – a reference to an old and revered children’s book. This year, The Luck of Han’anga finally started to eat away at that lead. As the gap began to close, I found myself rooting for the little guy. Perhaps that was foolish, but I couldn’t help myself. Every time a copy sold, I found myself grinning. Still in the lead! Way to go, Little Book That Could!

And now it’s in second place, and that leaves me feeling a bit melancholy. Silly, really, since the book is still “in print,” and will be for as long as I have anything to say about it. (One of the true advantages to being self-published is that you can keep a book out there indefinitely, no matter how slowly it sells.) It will sell additional copies. There will be more readers sharing that starlit journey with me. It may even regain the lead. You never know! And yet, I’m sitting here feeling the way I do when the team I root for loses the World Series. Yes, there’s always “next year,” but still …

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor   Leave a comment

I rarely use this weblog directly for book promotion, since there’s a whole page here listing currently available books and sources. I’ve always assumed that if readers were curious, they’d click the tab and have a look. Now and then I announce a convention appearance, or a signing, but in general I like to keep the blog for other matters, and it would seem from comments I’ve received that this is a good choice.  For this entry, however, I must beg your indulgence and resort to a bit of advertising. No tool I currently have at my disposal will reach so many of you, so quickly, and at a price I can afford. (Okay, so, it doesn’t cost me anything but a little time to do it this way.) And I need that extra reach right now to make a particular promotional activity work.

For the next week (Mar. 2 through Mar. 8) Smashwords is running its “Read an Ebook Week” site-wide promotion. I’ve decided to participate this year by offering what I’ve published at substantially reduced prices. Just copy and paste the “coupon code” for a title when prompted to do so during the checkout process to receive the discount. This sale on Smashwords is a huge affair, with many discounted and free books available for readers of every age and interest. The hope is, of course, that you will be tempted to take a chance on work you might otherwise have been hesitant to purchase. Trying a new author does involve risking an investment of time and money, after all. So here’s a chance to reduce the monetary cost, at least. (Since the current crop of eReaders lack the ability to read the books for you, there’s nothing for it. You’ll have to spend the time.)

Below I’ve listed, for your convenience, the direct links to my books on Smashwords, along with the coupon codes you will need. (These codes are also shown on the Smashwords page for each title.) If you decide to jump in and give me a try this way, thanks! And feel free to tell me (and everyone else who wanders Under Desert Stars) what you thought of the book or books you try. Just post a comment to this entry.

Checkout Codes and Links:

Mr. Olcott’s Skies  Just 99¢ with code REW50  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/149528

Second Chance (short story) FREE with code RW100  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/294718

The three currently available volumes in The War of the Second Iteration series are each $1.00 when you use code REW75. (Books Four and Five should be available in late 2014 and mid 2015, respectively.)

The Luck of Han’anga (War of the Second Iteration, Book One)  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/181261

Founders’ Effect  (War of the Second Iteration, Book Two) https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/285857

The Plight of the Eli’ahtna  (War of the Second Iteration, Book Three) https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/382041

And, of course, there’s Long Time Passing, always free for all eReaders!

Here’s hoping this provides people with an incentive to give these books a try! One way or the other, thanks for your patience and your time. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog browsing.

Stars in the Balance   5 comments

On the 27th of August, 2003, Mars and our Earth passed as close to each other as they’ve been in recorded history. No one alive will see such a thing again. This was all treated as headline news, at the time, and spawned one of the most persistent internet hoaxes I know of, that being the claim that any given August Mars will appear as large as the Full Moon in the night sky. The event also marked a turning point in my life, since it changed astronomy from a fondly remembered teenage obsession to a present day pursuit of wonders in the night sky.

I was employed by a lab on the U of A campus that summer and saw an article in the campus newspaper about the close approach. There was an announcement of a related public event in that article, viewings of Mars from the campus mall on the weekend before and the weekend after opposition, hosted by the Flandrau Science Center and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association. Mars that close, viewed through a telescope? For free? No matter how low a level my astronomy interest had reached, it was too attractive a notion to pass up, so my wife and I attended the first viewing. The desert monsoon was in progress, and the clouds left behind by afternoon thunderstorms left us with mere glimpses of Mars, though I did wander the field examining telescopes and speaking with their enthusiastic users. It made me nostalgic for times past, to say the least. It was also a strange and wonderful feeling to actually look through telescopes of sizes and powers I could only dream of owning as a teenager.
The following weekend, just a day or two after the actual opposition, the weather was clear. We decided to give it another try, and were well rewarded for our effort. There were more telescopes on the mall, and more people had come out to have a look. It was a noisy event, punctuated by excited shouts as folk unfamiliar with telescopes had their first looks at Mars or some other celestial sight. I saw Mars as I’d never seen it before, and will never see it again. By the time we were home I’d decided on two things: the Old Scope was coming out of the box, and ownership of a newer, larger instrument was in my immediate future.

If you’ve read my short amateur astronomy memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies, you already know that this is exactly how it unfolded. Now I find myself sitting here, ten years after that event, contemplating the changes that have come since then.

For a time, amateur astronomy was everything. I bought gear, I bought books, and I joined the local club. I immersed myself in the hobby, attending star parties and outreach events, writing reviews and observing essays for the Cloudy Nights forum, on which I also served as a moderator and then an administrator. I wrote instructional material for the local club and helped run their beginners’ program for a time. Amateur astronomy became the major focus of my free time. This was possible because I’d given up writing.
I’ve mentioned that sad decision in this blog in the past, so suffice to say that after nearly two decades of selling ever fewer magazine articles, and not a word of fiction, I quit. There was no way I could continue to justify the attempt, especially knowing as I did that it was getting harder all the while for new authors to break in. I quit, but the creative energy was still there, scratching and clawing at me from the inside, seeking a way out. Astronomy provided that outlet. The planning and study required for observing, the interactions online, the reviews and observing reports, all these aspects and more soaked up that energy and then some. Because of this, some of the most creative times in my life involved no writing at all, or writing as incidental to astronomy, a tool to communicate and share my love of starlight and moonlight with others.
Along came the Kindle, and then Nook and Kobo. The digital revolution had finally caught up with publishing; it did so all of a sudden and in a big way. As a writer, I found myself with options that hadn’t (and couldn’t have) existed when I stopped trying to sell my words. When I realized there was a new reason to hope, a reason to write in earnest, writing experienced the same sort of revival that astronomy did in August 2003. Regrettably, this has happened at the expense of star gazing.

An unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of the writing revival has been a reduction in the amount of time spent at the eyepiece. For the last couple of years I’ve put all my spare time and energy into books and stories, and felt very good about doing so. As a priority, it’s a no-brainer. To have any chance of success I need to produce material for publication, balancing speed of output with quality. But here, a few days after the 10th anniversary of my return to my youthful obsession with star gazing, I find myself seeking a balance of another sort. I must write, for this is the very definition of my being. But I must find the time to go out and point lens and mirrors at the sky, to gather and focus ancient light on my eyes and imagination. The spirit in me craves both. The challenge before me is to placate the muse, and somehow manage to keep looking up.

Save The Date! 9/14/13   Leave a comment

Just about a week ago I tried something new, in terms of promoting the books I write. I’ve placed copies of all three books available in paperback – The Luck of Han’anga, Founders’ Effect, and Mr. Olcott’s Skies – on the shelves of a Tucson independent bookseller. Mostly Books has been a Tucson fixture for book lovers since 1988, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know of them until last year’s TusCon, a local science fiction convention. When I finally visited the store, I saw that they had shelf space given over to local authors. I contacted them a bit later via email, and found them more than willing to put a couple of copies of each book on the shelf. And, oh by the way, would I like to hold a signing at their store?

Of course, I said “Yes!”

I’ve wanted to explore the possibilities of connecting with my local book market for some time now, but haven’t been sure how to get things started. Turns out, with Mostly Books at least, all I had to do was ask. That’s about as easy as self-promotion gets. I am pleased that they support local authors, and am very happy, now, to be one of those authors.

The signing is currently scheduled for September 14th of this year, from 1pm to 2pm (Mountain Standard Time). Copies of The Luck of Han’anga, Founders’ Effect, and – the featured title – Mr. Olcott’s Skies will be available. So if you’re local, or happen to be in town that day, make your way to Mostly Books and say hello! The more, the merrier!

Mostly Books
September 14, 2013
1pm to 2pm MST

A Moon Watcher’s Night Before Christmas   6 comments

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a feline was stirring, nor was my spouse;

The telescope was set up and positioned with care,

For the Moon was shining brightly high up in the air;

 

The cats were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of catnip mousies danced in their brainless heads;

I sat by my telescope, perched on a chair,

And had just settled down for a long lunar stare,

 

When out in the desert there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from the chair to see what was the matter.

Away from the eyepiece I turned in a flash,

Set aside Rukl and made ready to dash.

 

The moon rising high in the dark winter sky,

Gave an illusion of daylight to my adjusted eyes,

And what to those dilated pupils should appear,

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

 

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than roadrunners his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;

 

“Now, Davy! now, Darney! now, Proclus and Vieta!

On, Cauchy! on Cruger! on Darwin and Billy!

To the top of the mesquites! fly over them all!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

 

As mesquite pods that before the wild monsoon storm fly,

When they meet with an obstacle and bounce to the sky,

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

And landing they skidded over tiles that were still new.

 

The wind of their passages blew pages and charts,

And rattled the eyepieces, which gave me a start.

As I settled my papers and was turning around,

Down from the roof St. Nicholas came with a bound.

 

He was dressed in fake fur, from his head to his foot,

And he carefully shook his clothes free of ashes and soot;

“I saw where you were aiming,” he said like a true geek,

“And couldn’t resist pausing to have a quick peek!”

 

That Nick was a lunie came as a surprise!

Who’d think an astronomer would wear such a disguise!

His eyes darted toward the eyepiece, clearly drawn to that show,

And his beard so white in the moonlight did glow;

 

He looked just as I’d imagined, so long ago,

When my telescope was much smaller and yet suited me so;

With a wink of my eye and a nod of my head,

I stepped from the eyepiece and said, “Go right ahead!”

 

He spoke not a word, but went straight to my scope,

And stared at the Moon long enough that kids elsewhere lost hope,

Then shaking my hand he said “Thanks for the view!”

And handed me an eyepiece that was shiny and new.

 

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew out of town like a missile.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he cruised out of sight,

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a clear night!”

 

Posted December 24, 2012 by underdesertstars in Amateur Astronomy

Words Take Over   Leave a comment

Time and energy for making astronomical observations has been rather scarce of late. My interest in matters astronomical has never been stronger, but writing has taken such a firm hold of my life that other priorities have been set back a notch or two. (Gardening is one of these. You should see the weeds out there!) Until relatively recently I had the time to devote to astronomy (and horticulture) because I’d given up on writing. The creative energy once soaked up by writing needed to go elsewhere. It went into the Earth and out to the stars.

It’s not really a surprise that a return to writing has rearranged my life as it has. Now that modern self publishing (independent publishing, as many prefer to put it) has turned being published from a bottleneck to an open outlet, I have no reason to hold back. And for the past year and a half or so, I haven’t held back at all. Getting the words down, getting the stories told, is priority one, without question. So I turn my eyes back to the Moon and stars only at those times when I have gotten enough writing done that I feel comfortable taking some time at the eyepiece.

Writing follows me to the eyepiece, and has changed the way I practice astronomy in a way that I didn’t expect. With my mind so focused on making words work for me, these days, I find myself wielding a pencil less often, when I record observations. Instead of sketching each object, I find myself taking ever more detailed notes. It was a subtle drift from one method to the other as the dominant technique, and it’s far from a complete change. I still apply graphite to the blending stump on a regular basis, especially when working on something like an Astronomical League observing project. But for observations made for the sake of observing, I just don’t sketch things as often.

Many artists focus on one form of self-expression to the near exclusion of others. (People who can draw, sing, and play a musical instrument with equal facility leave me awestruck.) The art I practice is that of wordsmithing, and it has always suffered competition without much grace. I suppose for me it’s a sort of artistic monogamy. And the more involved with writing I am, the more ways writing finds to express itself in my daily life. For astronomy, writing always had a role, but for years I spent as much timing illustrating observing reports as I did writing them. Words are my thing, now more than ever, the medium in which I best express what I see and think and feel while out under the stars.

I crossed a divide of sorts when I started using a digital voice recorder, instead of scribbling in the dark. Even a faint red light reflected off a white piece of paper (and it doesn’t matter if I’m sketching or scribbling) reduces dark adaptation, a necessary trade-off for effective sketching. With a DVR and a sense for words, I don’t need to reduce my night vision as much, though reading star charts still has an effect. Use of the DVR promotes spontaneity as I search for ways to describe what I see. The following day I use those spoken words for a foundation, and write essays to fill my observation reports. Allowing the medium that comes most naturally to me take over when recording observations has made visual observing a more vivid experience for me. As was true of sketching, making the effort to come up with just the right word or phrase focuses my attention in ways that links my mind more clearly to the process of observing. Just as it happens with sketching, that focus means I see more, and see more clearly. The act of observing becomes an interaction between lenses, eyes, and mind, and not a merely passive collection of photons by the retina.

As with any art, the more you write the more you can write, and with greater facility. The desire to write also grows. The more writing I do, the more I want to write, so it really is no surprise that I practice astronomy the way I do, these days. At least, when I manage time to do a little observing, that is. The writing habit that has taken the sketch pad out of my hands also keeps me working on the next book or short story. That leaves me with little time for star-gazing as I work to get another book written and published.

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