Any avid astrophotographer will tell you that at some point you have to ask yourself, “How many times can I shoot M42”? I derive a lot of satisfaction out of shooting with different cameras/optics/etc. and modifying my techniques, so yes I do sometimes keep revisiting the same targets. The science of imaging is fascinating to me all on it’s own merits; this is the engineer in me. Also inside me is an artist/photographer and the same yearning to shoot interesting bird photographs also draws me to the aesthetic side of astrophotography. I’ve focused for a while on emission nebula and the larger galaxies, but lately I’ve been feeling the tug of interesting galaxy groupings.
So it was at this years NEAF, I went searching on a break from my own booth duty to the various book sellers inquiring about any observing or imaging guides focused on galaxy clusters (you know, Markarians Chain, etc.). One vendor, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty had no idea what I was talking about. A young woman running the booth found an introductory book on the night sky and showed me that it had star charts that showed were some galaxies were. She get’s an A for effort… I talked with her a few moments, and was polite, but moved on as quickly as possible realizing that she had simply drawn the short straw this weekend, and none of the selections were along the lines of what I was looking for anyway. I then came to the Willman Bell booth and picked up a copy of The ARP Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies by Jeff Kanipe and Dennis Webb. Only seconds after I started flipping through the pages I realized I had found what I was looking for.
Once home, it immediately became my nighttime reading project before bed. So many amateur astronomer/imagers actually know very little of the real “astronomy” of the objects they shoot. It is not unlike birding where people enjoy shooting animals, but never stop to watch them… and learn more about their nature. I however am not in this category, after all, I’m the Accidental Astronomer! I get to do real Astronomy by writing software for astronomers… Right?
Well so I thought anyway. Like many amateur astronomers I did take some on-line classes at Swinburne, and sure I read a lot of astronomy books and articles, but this book squarely schooled me on how ignorant I still was when it came to galaxies.
The book starts out with the biography of Halton “Chip” Arp, from his youth, throughout his career at Mt. Wilson and Palomar, up until his most recent research. His story follows along hand in hand with our understanding of galaxies, and is a fascinating inside look at the world of professional astronomy during most of the 20th century as our understanding of galaxies blossomed, and larger and larger instruments were brought to bear on our understanding of the universe. This book is not simply about the Arp Catalog, but it’s about how we’ve come to know what we know about galaxies, and how much we really still don’t know about galaxies. The history and controversies, and indeed the politics of the scientific community reads like a soap opera during the course of Arp’s professional career. As for my own astronomy education, I learned more about how galaxies are classified, and have become fascinated by how much we still have to learn about galaxy formation, and the dynamics of galaxy evolution. Fulfilling my original quest, I learned about the other various well known catalogs of galaxies, and galaxy clusters as well. Now I have a better appreciation for what all those extra catalogs in TheSkyX are about, and I have been turned on to a vast resource already at my disposal for browsing through galaxy clusters and groupings I didn’t even know I was already sitting on.
The ARP Catalog itself is composed of 338 galaxies (and galaxy pairs and groupings!) that defy attempts to put galaxy shapes into well ordered and well defined categories, and indeed the authors make a not too weak case that all galaxies are really peculiar if you study them closely enough. The catalog is broken down into groupings and each target is presented in black and white inverted. This makes for a much better printed representation of the subtle features of the galaxy in question.
There are observing guides, and projects laid out for not just imagers, but visual observers as well. Notes on each object, finder charts, and a rich set of references are also included. Of particular interest is the fact that the entire catalog is replicated from the original work from Mt. Wilson and Palomar by contemporary amateur imagers using modern CCD cameras (each image also is appropriately credited). The fact that amateur work today rivals the work of the worlds largest observatories only a few decades ago is worthy of pause… and perhaps a moment’s reflection and reverence.
I have found in this volume, a source of imaging inspiration potentially for years to come. It has also kindled an interest in galaxy dynamics and evolution that will lend further meaning and enjoyment to my future imaging projects. Also important for me, is that the entire catalog is accessible from my latitude… I foresee an imaging marathon coming on 😉