Anyway, the weather makes me realize that the holidays are not only coming soon, but virtually here. Since previous attempts at stopping the holidays from coming have failed miserably, I'm just going to give in and write my annual admonition about astronomy gift buying.
If you read my posts from previous years (2008a, 2008b, 2007, 2006), you'll see a recurring theme. If you are looking to buy a gift for the budding astronomer, don't buy a cheap telescope at the department store. In the past, I (and most amateur and professional astronomers I've ever met) always recommended binoculars instead. That's still not a bad idea. Binoculars let you see the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, star clusters, nebulae, and some galaxies, but they also can be used for all kinds of other things (sporting events, nature watching, spying on the neighbors, etc.). If your gift recipient loses interest in astronomy, binoculars can still be used extensively, while telescopes will sit gathering dust.
This year, I'll suggest another option. If you have a new astronomer or a child who wants a telescope, consider buying a Galileoscope. These inexpensive telescopes, designed for the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, are the best-built small telescope you can buy for a small cost. The telescope itself is $20 plus shipping, though you'll also want to buy a standard camera tripod on which to mount the telescope. These small telescopes are high enough quality to see the rings of Saturn, slightly higher magnification than most binoculars. The only bad thing about the Galileoscope is that you probably won't get it in time for Christmas if you order now.
If your astronomy buff already has a telescope, there are a great many other options. There are some great new astronomy books out this year:
- Phil Plait's Death From The Skies! goes through the science of all the ways the world actually might end,
- National Geographic's Backyard Guide to the Night Sky (reviewed here; full disclosure - NatGeo sent me a complementary copy of the book) is a beautiful guidebook, though with some number of factual errors.
- There are numerous coffee table books with full-color prints of Hubble Space Telescope pictures (like this one from National Geographic that I glanced through at Borders last week).
- Subscriptions or renwals to magazines like Astronomy or Sky and Telescope.
If you are still unsure what to buy, or if your loved one has most everything astronomy related that they could ever need, consider donating money to some science-related causes. You can donate Galileoscopes to needy science classrooms around the world for just $15 each. You can donate money for other specific science classroom projects through DonorsChoose.org. I will be donating money on my family's behalf to the Measles Initiative (a joint project of the Red Cross, World Health Organization, UNICEF, and others to eradicate measles from the face of the planet) and Nothing But Nets, a campaign to distribute mosquito nets to poor families in Africa and stop the spread of malaria. These may not be directly astronomy related, but they serve a more immediate need on our home planet.
Finally, if you are short on money, why not find a star party near you and take your friends/family along? At star parties, astronomers who already have expensive equipment gladly and freely share the treasures of the night sky with anyone who comes around. Dress up warmly, take some hot cocoa with you, and look at Jupiter, Mars, the Orion Nebula, and whatever other wonders your hosts happen to find. The price can't be beat, and, if it is clear, you'll have the best seat on Earth.
Final Clarification: I don't get any compensation for anything I've promoted on this page, other than the free copy of National Geographic's Backyard Guide to the Night Sky. Nor did any of these merchants beyond National Geographic ask me to talk about their product at any point. These opinions are strictly mine, and not those of the University of Texas or the National Science Foundation.
Edit #2: An hour after posting this, I learned of a new article from Sky & Telescope that reviews low-cost starter telescopes. They know small telescopes better than I do, so I'd suggest you read it if you still want to buy a telescope as a gift! But still consider binoculars or a Galileoscope or just a book, especially for the brand-new astronomy buff.
Edit #3: I would also be remiss if I did not suggest McDonald Observatory's StarDate magazine, or any of the selections from their online gift shop.