The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide: Fourth Edition of a Classic Reviewed

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The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, Fourth Edition. By Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer – Credit Firefly Books LTD

I recently had a conversation with a longtime astronomy club member. A beginner had asked him for advice on getting started in practical observational astronomy. He gave the beginner three options: 

  • First, seek out an experienced mentor to walk you through the process. 
  • Second, join your local astronomy club and hang out with them. 
  • Or, third, get a copy of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Dickinson and Dyer. 

It’s perhaps an oversimplification, but not by much. Short of having someone at your side, Dickinson & Dyer’s work has become the go-to reference for beginners looking to get started in practical astronomy. First published in 1991, the book has gone through three revisions, the latest being what is described as a “complete overhaul” of the work. 

I recall purchasing my first copy in the early 1990s. The hardcover book looked huge to me at 295 pages, and its $35 price made me think twice on my modest salary. But I remember poring over every page (some of them multiple times) and wishing there was more at the end. The second edition ($49.95) came out in 2002. The black and white photographs had been replaced by beautiful full-color images, and the book had grown to 336 pages. In 2008 the 368 third edition (also $49.95) came out and was considered at the time by many to be the ultimate version of the book. 

Enter the 2021 fourth edition. Although the book has grown to 416 pages, they’ve held the line on the price at $49.95. Co-author Alan Dyer told me the new edition is a labor of love, a result of twelve-plus months of forced lockdown. They made sure to include more observing content, so it’s no longer just a “gear guide”.  

Thirty years’ worth and four editions of The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. Credit: Ed Ting 

I spent a rainy weekend going back through all four editions. What struck me is that, though the basic format of the book has remained unchanged, every chapter has been improved. Equipment models have been updated, old grainy photos have been replaced by high resolution digital versions, and step-by-step guides have been added for tricky topics like how to use equatorial mounts. The part dealing with observing contains much new material; even if you have one of the earlier editions, this new one is worth getting for this section alone. As an example, for a real visual treat, check out Chapter 13, which deals with how to observe the moon. The final section of the book deals with astrophotography. It’s good that the authors saved this for last, as astrophotography is a complex topic requiring knowledge of all the other preceding material for success. 

It is hard to believe it has been over thirty years since I first made my acquaintance with this book. The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide has now been with me for over half my life. This new version is the best one of all. In closing, I can do no better than to quote Astronomy magazine’s former editor Robert Burnham, who, in the preface of the third edition states: “This is by far the best book I know for helping anyone become an amateur stargazer…there’s no better place to begin than here.” That’s equally true for the fourth edition as well. 

 Website: Firefly Books LTD, Canada
MSRP: $49.95 CDN (Available for pre-order)

About Ed Ting

Ed Ting is a well-known amateur astronomer. His work has appeared in Sky & Telescope, Night Sky, Skywatch, Amateur Astronomy, Discover, and Popular Mechanics magazines. His web site, www.scopereviews.com, is a widely-read telescope review web site. He is a National Science Foundation Ambassador to Chile and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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