The first astronomy book I ever read was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley when I was six years old. What caught my interest in astronomy at that young age were the pictures in the newspaper of Jupiter as the Voyager spacecraft made its flyby. My parents got me a telescope and I started looking at stars and planets in my backyard. I was hooked.
I learned a lot about astronomy since then, almost all of it from Isaac Asimov. But I have never taken a formal astronomy class.
Recently, however, I discovered that I needed to bone up on this subject. Many science fiction writers are also working scientists and in writing their stories, they have a clear advantage of a lifetime of familiarity with their area of expertise. I am not a scientist and I sometimes make amateur (and silly) mistakes in a story. Editors have been exceedingly kind and helpful in pointing these out to me. And since I want to learn from my mistakes, especially when editors prompt me to do so, I felt it was time that I really brushed up on my astronomy–a crucial skill for a science fiction writer to have.
So I contacted my friend Michael A. Burstein–who does have a science background, who has taught science and edited science texts (to say nothing of having written outstanding science fiction)–and asked him to suggest a good text for me to start with.
Michael suggested Astronomy Today (7th edition) by Chaisson and McMillan and this evening, I placed an order for that text book. When it arrives, I plan to go through it at a nice steady pace (on weekends, during my “research time”) in order to make sure that I am really understanding what I am reading, not just whipping through it. It is my hope that not only will I come away with a better understanding and appreciation of astronomy, but that it will help to make me a better science fiction writer.
I twitched when I saw the phrase, “The Nine Planets;” that’s one of the things I had to keep an eye out for and correct when I was working with Michael Burstein.
Yeah, I guess that title is rather dated now, but the book is more than 30 years old. My guess is that Michael would still call it The Nine Planets if he could have his way. 😉