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Stargazer’s Almanac 2017 – Bob Mizon et al ****
* UPDATED * To 2017 edition
If your idea of an almanac is a thick old book full of folk wisdom (‘If ye plant in October, your crops will fall over’), phases of the moon and tide times, you’ll only get one thing right about this almanac – it does contain phases of the moon. But the Stargazer’s Almanac is much more.
The format is one of a large month-by-month calendar, but instead of having spaces to write in when you take the dog to the vets, the children to the cinema or vice versa, it has two big spreads of the horizon, looking North and looking South on the 15th of the month at 10pm GMT from a UK viewpoint. With this in hand you should be able to explore the night sky and sort out Andromeda from Perseus. As well as constellations it shows the positions of planets, points out interesting stars, and, yes, shows the phase of the moon through the month.
After the charts there are a couple of pairs of pages of information, as additional reading. This year, we get a page on the astronomer Charles Messier, one on the 'great American eclipse one 2017 (handy if you can get there) and a regular feature on the effects of street lights and light pollution general. But these are a minor addition - the important thing is the maps. I really felt that with this in hand I could find my way around the sky as I never have before. I can spot a couple of constellations and three planets, but with the help of the almanac, much more of the sky opens up.
I have now seen several of these almanacs and I continue to be slightly disappointed with the production values – the almanac is not particularly cheap, but the paper is matt, quite dull in appearance (probably very eco-friendly). On the plus side there's a metal rim on the hanging-up hole, so it's unlikely to get damaged. And there could have been more help on what you do if it’s not 10pm on the 15th of the month, though to be fair there is a bit of guidance, but more handholding would have been appreciated.
As it is, though, this is a really valuable asset to the amateur astronomer and a good gift for anyone with even the slightest interest in the stars. It’s the kind of thing that over time is likely to be pushed out by smartphone and iPad apps like SkyView, but it does have the advantage that you can still sit and enjoy it on a wet Tuesday afternoon, and it's much more decorative than that old Abba calendar.
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Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.
I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…