Emily LakdawallaAug 19, 2010

Review: "The Complete Sky & Telescope: Seven Decade Collection"

Sky & Telescope has just issued a set of 10 DVDs that contain every issue of the magazine published from the premier issue in November 1941 through December 2009, chronicling seven decades of scientific discovery and, of course, the entirety of the Space Age. The Complete Sky & Telescope: Seven Decade Collectionis hefty both in bookshelf space and in price, including one DVD case for each of the seven decades plus one for an index disk that permits you to search the text of the previous seven; and at full price it'll set you back $300, with the introductory price now set at $250. (Full disclosure: I'm now a Contributing Editor to S&T, and they sent me a complimentary set.)

The Complete Sky & Telescope: Seven Decade Collection
The Complete Sky & Telescope: Seven Decade Collection

What's on the DVDs are scanned copies of every page from these 70 years, with a Flash interface that makes browsing each issue very comfortable. I don't usually like Flash interfaces -- I'd rather have more direct access to the "data" -- but I must grudgingly admit that this is an effective use of Flash, allowing relatively quick page-turning, plus an easy-to-access hyperlinked text table of contents and a quick-scanning page thumbnail browser that you can optionally turn on; it's not bad at duplicating the experience of flipping the pages of a physical issue.

The pages are scanned images, not text, which means you can't search the text directly, but they have run the text through optical character recognition (OCR) software to permit text-based searches of the full text of every issue. The scanning is generally pretty good quality, although some pages turned out a bit dark, and in recent years, when paper became thinner (as it has with every magazine), there's a significant amount of ghosting, where the print on the back of the page you're looking at shows through. Still, all text and images I looked at were totally legible and in full color, easy to read on my 1920-by-1200-pixel monitor once I put the interface into "full screen" mode. Here's a screen shot of a two-page spread from an August 1976 story on Viking. I was surprised to see the image that occupies the right-hand page; a couple of years ago I searched for versions of these Viking global shots of Mars online and I found nothing anywhere near this pretty. *

Two pages from the August 1976 issue of Sky & Telescope
Two pages from the August 1976 issue of Sky & Telescope

Plus, it can be searched. Search is okay, within limitations. It ain't Google. Search works differently depending on whether you want to search within an entire decade or within a single issue (you cannot search all seven decades at once). You can only search exact text strings, though you can use wildcards. The search-a-decade tool does have a nice feature: search results are ordered by how many occurrences of your search string were found within a single issue, which means that a feature article on the topic of your search (if one exists) will be a top result of your search.

Of course, the search is run on the OCR'd version of the pages, which is only as good as the quality of the OCR. Judging from funny text strings I saw in search results, the OCR is definitely not perfect (my favorite blooper so far was a December 1977 article titled "The Sodium Cloud of Lo" in the search results, which was supposed to be about the sodium cloud of Io), but it is good enough, and of course when you go to the actual page to read, the text you see is a scanned image, so doesn't suffer from OCR errors. I ran a couple of simple searches on "Voyager" and "Viking" and was soon browsing lots of feature articles written as these missions were active; it is just as interesting to read the preview articles as it is to read the wrapups. While most Sky & Telescope articles are written by space journalists (I noted in passing that Kelly Beatty has been writing for S&T for at least 34 years!!!), a significant number of mission-related articles were written by scientists and engineers, like Ellis Miner and Carl Sagan.

All in all, it's a nice addition to the library; I'll find it valuable whenever I find myself wanting to research missions that were active before the advent of the World Wide Web. I do have to confess that I would have found the $250 asking price a bit steep for my wallet. I wish the search was a little more sophisticated, (for instance, allowing Boolean searches or search across decades), and I wish they'd found a way to package the 10 DVDs in a way that occupied less shelf space, but it's pretty astounding to consider just how many thousands of pages of well-researched, well-illustrated material is in the box. Anybody who has more than one shelf of a bookcase devoted to storing back issues of S & T might consider making this purchase.

Now if I only had a DVD set of all back issues of The Planetary Report...hmmm....

(A note to members: while we do not [yet] offer such a product, you can, at least, download the past 10 years of The Planetary Report in fully-searchable PDF format from the For Members area of the website. If you don't know how to log in to the For Members area, send an email to [email protected].)*By the way, that August 1976 view of Mars was outstanding for its day, but modern computers can do better with old data. Here's my version of the same image:

Viking 1 approaches Mars
Viking 1 approaches Mars Viking 1 captured several images of a global Mars as it approached for its orbit insertion in 1976. This view includes Valles Marineris at center and the Argyre basin in the south.Image: NASA / JPL / color composite by Emily Lakdawalla

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