In Ohio, cloud cover often blocks a clear view of the night sky, but a local writer has published a 180-page book to help amateur astronomers learn the names and locations of common heavenly phenomena.
This past weekend, Dan Pope of Tiffin was signing and selling copies of his new softcover book, "Your Handle on the Night Sky," a collection of his syndicated newspaper columns. Dan credits his wife, Char, with the book's format and covers.
"The words are mine but the appearance is Char's," he said.
The book is an extension of the columns, which originated in 2005. Dan said Char encouraged him to start writing a weekly astronomy column. At her urging, he approached A-T Editor Rob Weaver to see whether such a column would interest him.
"She listened to me talk about what I was learning and seeing in the night sky. I was doing a lot of reading and she was impressed. She said 'You should share this with people. I know there are people out there who would like to know these things,'" Dan said.
Once the column debuted in Seneca County, other Ohio newspapers and publications in other states also requested to carry it. He now writes for papers in Ohio, Utah, Pennsylvania and California.
Pope says he usually finds it easy to choose a subject, even though the same heavenly bodies cycle through the sky every year. He said he manages to find a new slant for each topic, and the repetition helps people to remember what they can expect to see above them each month.
"Sometimes I find myself using the same wording I've used in the past because I haven't figured out a way to improve when I'm describing the same constellations, stars and planets. It seems to me that things happen slowly enough in the sky that what I'm writing about - even though I wrote about it last year - it's been a year and a lot has happened, and I assume my readers don't remember exactly. ... We have so many cloudy nights here, they need to be reminded of what's up there each season," Pope said.
He said he likes to add the background of the mythological characters for which the formations and planets are named. One reader corresponds frequently with him in appreciation of the Greek and Roman stories he includes.
Many constellations are not visible from the northern hemisphere, he said; artificial light blocks others from view, and many are difficult to see without a telescope.
"I've decided to only write about the ones that I think you have a chance of seeing. I think other writers feel a need to be complete. There are 88 constellations, so by golly, they write about every one," Pope said. "There's a fair amount of light pollution that, unless you have an extremely dark sky, quite a few are too faint to see, and it's frustrating to write as though this is something you can see. ... so I try to stick with the brightest, the ones I can see when I walk out."
Many readers contact Pope with questions about bright "stars" they notice in a certain part of the sky. Usually, the light is from a planet that is orbiting the sun in the vicinity of Earth.
For example, this month, Venus and Jupiter can be seen together in the southwestern sky.
Pope said he must edit carefully, depending on the paper in which a given column is to appear. People in California may not be able to discern the same objects Ohioans can see above them. Spacecraft also can be spotted at times in some parts of the country.
"Probably the most exciting thing we had with the space station was when shuttles were going up. About three times, I was able to see the shuttles. ... about a minute or two apart as they were heading for rendezvous or when they undocked and were coming back. ... We won't see that any more."
Pope said he had many proposals for the title of the book. He chose to include an allusion to the "handle" of the Big Dipper constellation because he wanted that formation to be pictured on the cover.
Some people said the title is too long, but Pope settled on his final choice to coordinate with the cover.
"Ryan Moore actually created this for me. I penciled out a man and woman and two kids, a fire and the Big Dipper up here. I made a sketch, but it looked nothing like this. He did a fantastic job," Dan said.
Char said Moore, a Columbian graduate, works as a graphic artist in New York. She knew him from her days as a high school teacher in Tiffin. Moore also designed the album cover for Char's solo piano CD.
Since his book's release in November, Dan has sold more than 80 books.
The book came out in response to requests from readers who were frustrated at cutting out the columns but wanted to remember and use the
content. Dan has devoted a separate chapter to each month, and special topics are addressed in additional sections.
Having published the columns prior to writing the book, he created a ready-made audience even before the volume came out. Feedback from readers has been positive so far.
Char calls her husband "the reluctant expert."
"I didn't write this to become rich or famous," Dan said. "The only reason I wrote the book was because of the number of readers who kept asking, 'Would you write a book?' All of them have their copies and I have adult children who are buying this book for their fathers and mothers who have retired."
A pre-teen reader said she found the columns easy to read and understand, and a 90-plus woman had the same comment. Dan said he is pleased to reach people of all ages without being overly "scientific" or tedious.
One grandmother from Tiffin wrote to Pope about sharing his columns with her grandchildren.
"She said the kids still talk about when they took the four-wheeler out in the field and watched the meteor shower in August," Char said.
The Popes like to travel, which gives Dan opportunities to observe and write about the sky in many locations. Although the information is not something people need, he has found many people have an interest.
Star-gazing is an inexpensive form of recreation and a novel way to bond with family members.
Dan Pope's website is www.yourhandleonthenightsky.
com. His column appears Sundays in The A-T on page 4C.