Nebulae and How to Observe Them

a review by Peter Argenziano

Nebulae and How to Observe Them
by Steven R. Coe
Springer Science, 2006, $29.95
ISBN: 1846284821

Nebulae and How to Observe Them is the latest book in the Astronomer's Observing Guides series of books published by Springer. This is Steve Coe's second book, his first being Deep Sky Observing, The Astronomical Tourist published by Springer-Verlag in 2000.


I have been looking forward to reading Steve Coe’s new book since I first found out it was being written. In addition to my affinity for observing galaxies, I also enjoy observing nebulae, especially planetaries. I bought a copy at the November meeting of the Saguaro Astronomy Club and promptly read it over the ensuing weekend.


This beautifully illustrated soft cover book is comprised of 156 pages, spanning a dozen chapters. The first six chapters are spent setting the stage for the many observations covered in the last six chapters. Coe’s style of writing is relaxed and informal while also conveying his expertise in and love of observational astronomy. This book was clearly a labor of love; penned by a seasoned deep sky observer for deep sky observers of all experience levels.


The book begins with a brief discussion on binoculars, telescopes and eyepieces. The information is succinctly presented in the context of the book’s subject so as not to cross over into becoming another introductory observing primer. Coe manages to keep his readers happily turning pages by mixing the technical aspects of the equipment with his use of personal anecdotes. His style lends a personal touch to the writing; the reader feels as though he’s conversing with an observing buddy.


Before getting to the heart of his topic, Coe spends a little ink explaining his views on the importance of taking notes while observing. He also suggests the need for understanding your telescope as an observational system. This is an area that I feel isn’t covered in many books. I’ve always felt that the observational experience was enhanced by my understanding not only of the magnification a certain eyepiece provides in each telescope I use, but also in knowing the true field of view presented. The other critical component is in knowing the apparent size of your target. Some very good information is covered in these pages.


Next to the chapters covering the nebulae observations, my favorite was the chapter entitled Nebula Knowledge. Coe covers emission, reflection, planetary and dark nebulae in addition to supernova remnants in surprisingly simple terms. After a brief discussion of spectra and filters, it’s on to the observations.


The chapters covering the observations of specific nebulae are organized by season. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list of every nebula worth looking at, but rather a seasonal menu of good examples of each type of nebula. Within each seasonal chapter, the nebulae are further segregated by constellation. For example, in the chapter covering northern spring (southern autumn) we read of observations in Carina, Centaurus, Corvus, Crux, Hydra, Musca, and Ursa Major… plus extragalactic nebulae contained in the galaxy M 101.


The nebulae covered in this book come from many different catalogs, including Abell, Barnard, IC, Messier and NGC. For each observation the author not only describes the object, but also informs the reader about the equipment used, and sometimes about the location and the other observers present for the session. One can’t help but see that Steve clearly loves deep sky observing.


I thoroughly enjoyed reading each description presented. For those objects that I have observed, I compared his observations to my own – sometimes mentally, sometimes by looking at my notes. You can bet that those objects that I haven’t yet observed will make their way onto my ‘to be seen’ list. And some will warrant yet another look. Beyond the descriptions of the different nebulae, this book has instilled in me a framework for observing nebulae that I may not have realized before. More so now than usual, I longingly look forward to the next New Moon.  


The book concludes with an index and a comprehensive appendix summarizing all of the nebulae covered in the preceding pages.


So, just who will enjoy reading this book? I believe there is something here for everyone: whether you thought that a planetary nebula was something that arose out of Pluto’s recent change in status, or you are blissfully working your way through the entire Perek and Kohoutek catalog. This is a fun book to read that earns shelf space in any observer’s bookcase.