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Book Reviews


Advancing Variable Star Astronomy
Authors: Thomas R Williams and Michael S Saladyga

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

ISBN: 978-0-521-51912-0

Price: £65 (Hb) 432pp


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Despite the title, this is not a book about variable star observing or about variable stars. It is a book about a group of people who founded, maintained and developed a group of enthusiastic observers. It just so happens that the organisation is the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO).

Whereas in the UK observing groups tend to be part of national organisations, such as the BAA and the SPA, and led by groups of volunteers, the circumstances of the AAVSO are different. The AAVSO was founded in 1911 by the amateur astronomer William Tyler Olcott after the need for such a group was promoted by the Harvard professional Edward C Pickering. Links with Harvard College Observatory effectively provided financial help to the AAVSO and the later creation of a Pickering Memorial Endowment provided finance for a paid officer. The number of paid staff has increased over the years as the AAVSO has exploited new technologies and increased its collaboration with professionals.

A significant part of the book is devoted to the crisis in the early 1950s when the AAVSO was evicted from its office at Harvard, lost access to the endowment that had provided most of its income and had to fight for survival. The later chapters show the AAVSO recovering and then going from strength to strength.

I noted two factual errors: Comet Halley is incorrectly stated as returning in 1987 (rather than 1985–86) and the maximum size of Twitter posts is given as 132 characters (rather than 140). I cannot comment on the accuracy of the history as portrayed – as is well documented by the authors, the early history of the AAVSO became confused thanks to several rewrites of its origins that progressively reduced the role of Olcott. This book aims to unravel the true early history.

Being unfamiliar with most of the history of the AAVSO, this book was a fascinating read. However, I suspect that many potential readers will be deterred by its price.

Read an interview with the authors of Advancing Variable Star Astronomy here.

Tony Markham

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Astronomy Now is pleased to announce the publication of Exploring Mars. The very best images of Mars taken by orbiting spacecraft and NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers fill up the 98 glossy pages of this special edition!
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Mars rover poster
This new poster features some of the best pictures from NASA's amazing Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
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