Friday, November 11, 2005

Charles Laird Calia: The Starlight Year

For every amateur astronomer who’s thought about building a backyard observatory (that's every amateur astronomer), this book shows that the project is a difficult labour of love and devotion. Calia, a Connecticut author, came back to amateur astronomy in the fall of 2001 after a 25-year break. His book "The Starlight Year" chronicles his attempts to build a backyard observatory throughout 2002.
Each chapter of the book covers one month as he tackles his adventures with building, highlights the constellation and deep-sky sights overhead in the month, remembers his love of astronomy as a teenager and ongoing debates with his astrologer mother, and keeps on building.
Like me, Calia is no handyman, and his construction attempts often need to be rethought and redone. Any home-built and home-designed observatory will encounter these kinds of problems, but Calia seems to suffer more than most, especially when it comes to properly squaring the floor, roof, tracks and other components. Each of the problems resulted in a water leak from some surface, not just the roof, the walls and floors leaked to. He may have been a bit too ambitious, but although he often considers giving up, he doesn’t.
Building an observatory is obviously much more work than he or most people would assume. There are numerous setbacks, and he gets advice from a brother-in-law, the Home Depot guy, neighbours and anyone else who hears about it, not to mention his wife, who watches him spending all his spare time and a lot of their money on the observatory.
He has a knack for describing the constellations. I’d never thought about how they all interact and the stories that can be told. There’s more going on than just Orion and Scorpius being on opposite sides of the sky. Orion may have Canis Major, his faithful dog, with him, but he’s also got the Taurus the bull bearing down on him, and a dog may not be much help. Likewise, in summer, it’s Hercules and Sagittarius against a bunch of wild animals.
There aren’t many books like this, that mix autobiographical information with the constellations, deep-sky objects and construction projects. Luckily, Calia is skilled enough to bring all of these topics together. My one quibble would be a diversion into a tale of cold winter observing during one of the summer chapters. This book is more about the journey than the ending, so I’m not spoiling it by telling you that he does have a working observatory by December. The book is more about the trials he suffers as an inexperienced builder and the emotional and historical events that have brought him to this point.
It’s an enjoyable book, and it’s easy to sympathize with Calia as he works on his dream project and dreams of clear skies in it. We have all felt the same at some time in our quest for clear skies.