Is that a star? A galaxy? A smudge on the lens? It’s easy to set up a telescope, squint at the night sky and see . . . something. But it’s hard to know what you’re looking at. In “Deep Sky Wonders,” Sue French collects 100 of her best columns for Sky & Telescope magazine, providing a month-by-month sightseeing list for backyard astronomers. The book comes with a handy set of seasonal sky maps, but it’s French’s crisp and conversational writing that makes the process of picking distant nebulae out of the heavens seem simple. Like a science-minded Martha Stewart, she spices up the conversation with tidbits of history (who discovered what and when) to keep readers motivated. Most important, she has a museum curator’s eye for detail, helping readers to fully appreciate those tiny flecks of light once they find them. And when she has doubts, she shares them. “This companion’s spectral class is generally given as G (yellow), but it is described in the Webb Society’s ‘Visual Atlas of Double Stars’ as ‘intensely blue,’ ” she writes, describing the star Delta Sculptoris. “Do you see any color here?”
Stumbleupon.com brings an element of chance to Web surfing: Sign up, tell it what you like — sports, TV, video games, cars, etc. — and, when you click the “stumble” button, it generates a seemingly random stream of articles related (albeit sometimes tangentially) to your interests. And if your interests happen to be scientific, it can even be educational. A few clicks of the mouse will steer your browser window from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’s “Brief Answers to Cosmic Questions” Web page — basically, an FAQ on life, the universe and everything — to instructions on how to build a speaker (courtesy of the Center for Science Education at the University of California at Berkeley). Sometimes, it may stumble a little too far off the beaten path — for example, taking you to a site dedicated to biology-oriented tattoo designs. Still, it’s a good way to learn something unexpected while trying to kill a coffee break.