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OLD // BUT STILL RELIABLE

Admit it. You see yellow and the quaint woodcuts, and you start to smile. Truss ads, plum dumpling recipes, mule festivals, headache remedies (kudzu and Florida orange juice), the Army-Navy score of 1890 (Navy won 24-0), zodiac secrets, planting tables, rustication, prognostication and maybe even prevarication.

Sure, the 1996 Old Farmer's Almanac is leavened with modernity, the inventor of speed limits, poetry by May Sarton, web sites, synthetic fibers and a dessert recipe from new immigrants from Pakistan. Still it's comfortable, homespun stuff, warm and fuzzy but old-fashioned.

Well, wipe that smile off your face. The guts of this little book and its dozens of competitors is cold, hard science: exact numbers tracking in detail the movements of the sun, the moon, planets and comets, day by day and degree by degree.

But your smile and your eyes should widen when you realize that, for $2.99 or less, these little books you might hang in the bathroom every winter also provide a useful, sophisticated database and a telling souvenir of intellectual history (plus plenty of delightful reading), for the core of any almanac is not astrology but astronomy, the most basic and earliest of sciences, page after digit-filled page that intimidate the number-challenged.

These are not mystical numbers but hard accurate figures based on careful, longterm observation and recording of the movement of the heavens. It is a key part of the scientific process that has gone on for millennia and underpinned the whole development of calendars, geometry, navigation and agriculture and sometimes religions.

While the daily coming and going of the sun, the lengthening and shortening of the days and perhaps the sun's movement north and south may be obvious, the more complicated cycles and movement of the moon still stump many of us today. Sorting them out enabled Mayans, Babylonians and Arab scientists to define weeks, months and much longer cycles.

Egyptian priests used their learning to track, among other things, the rise and fall of the river. "It doesn't matter if they said it was a message from the gods, it certainly helped the Nile peasant," according to Martin Roeder, a scientific historian and professor emeritus at Florida State University.

Scholars in other civilizations did the same thing, sometimes without fractions, decimal points or the concept of zero, Roeder said, noting that Stonehenge was itself a crude form of almanac. Columbus may have had one; Chaucer and Shakespeare referred to them.

In the frenetic rate of change in modern technology, current generations often fail to realize how old much basic science is. "The revolutions in science, and there aren't that many, date back to the miracle year of 1543," Roeder said, which produced Copernicus' views of the revolution of the Earth and the first modern anatomy book.

In the centuries that followed, Keppler, van Leeuwenhoek and Newton added to the knowledge, and eventually almanacs took written form and finally printed form.

"Life may have been mean, brutish and short, but that didn't mean society didn't have a pretty good understanding of the world," Roeder said.

Indeed today's popular American almanacs preserve an 18th century air and the enlightenment of the time rather than its lack of sophistication. Those first American almanacs were the most popular and useful publications of the first American printers in each of the colonies, full of practical, scientific information, from the actual calendar (and a schedule of church and government events) to distances between towns.

Almanac-makers from Benjamin Franklin and the Old Farmer's Almanac founder Robert B. Thomas also added aphorisms, religious proverbs, recipes and advertisements to boost sales, and, while they also included astrological information, one English predecessor of Poor Richard lampooned zodiacal fare with a jibe: "Saturn and Mercury are in conjunction with Venus and meet every night at a club to invent mischief."

The key contributor to the almanac was a brilliant number-cruncher who calculated all the astronomical data for the book, some ten thousand items, sometimes three years ahead, corrected for latitude and longitude.

In longhand.

No calculator, no computer, just foolscap, slate, lead and quill pens.

Such people were rightly called philomaths _ lovers of knowledge, especially math _ and they were many, including Benjamin Banneker, a pioneering African-American scientist. A self-taught astronomer and clockmaker, he did calculations for almanacs along the eastern seaboard.

Preparing the almanac as the philomaths did seems mind-blowing now. "I certainly couldn't sit down and calculate an almanac," admits George Musser, who edits Mercury magazine for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco. (The Old Farmer's Almanac today is calculated by an astronomy class at Amherst College.)

Educated people, from gentlemen-scientists like Jefferson to ship's captains and frontier farmers, not only turned to the almanac for reference, they added to it, often interleaving a journal of their own observations of stars, weather and other natural phenomena.

Indeed, although long-range weather predictions of any almanac are far less certain than the astronomy, many early users also predicted the weather based on their records of previous years and theories of cycles. Today's Old Farmer's Almanac also bases its predictions on a secret formula of cycles, updated with a former NASA scientist's studies of sunspot activity (and graphics from Accu-Weather).

In an interview Judson S. Hale Sr., the almanac's 12th editor since 1792, pointed out in an interview that the modern study of chaos theory holds that events that appear haphazard do ultimately follow cycles and systems. The almanac's current weather formulas had its hits (California flooding) and misses (Florida's annus horribilis of hurricanes) in 1995.

The unassailable heart of the almanac, however, has always been astronomical data. Such a timetable of planetary movement is technically called an ephemeris. More detailed versions are produced in print and software by astronomy publishers, academics and the federal government, which created the U.S. Naval Observatory for that purpose long before NASA.

The widespread availability of ephemeral data even in an inexpensive almanac is essential to the continued growth of astronomy as well as its understanding.

Even in the space age, this science still has only a few thousand professionals, who can't cover the whole sky and instead depend on the far more numerous amateurs.

For an amateur astronomer, the almanac serves two crucial purposes. The most practical is that the record of moonrise and moonset warns when moonlight will be a hindrance, making the sky too bright to see the stars.

The other, more profound use through the centuries is that almanac predictions provide a reference point, plotting what should be where, a crucial starting point that drives the scientific process. When stars do not conform, new comets and even theories are discovered _ and usually by amateurs _ not to mention that the layperson who gains a simple understanding of the almanac can learn why the moon is one part of the sky one night and somewhere else the next.

The almanac, combined with a simple star chart can be a simple start to one of the nation's fastest growing hobbies, says Chuck Pisa, who started watching the skies at 10 and 30 years later manages the telescope and specialty optics at Sarasota Camera Exchange and spreads the love of the stars in public schools.

Sometimes he steers novice astronomers away from buying a fancy new telescope. "They look through a telescope at a star, and it can be pretty boring unless it has some color," Pisa says because the drama in the skies is in their movement.

Buy a star chart, a pair of ordinary binoculars, an almanac and a lawnchair and start looking at the sky from the back yard. Watch at a regular time night by night, and you will begin to understand the moon's movement, identify the constellations and planets. Over the weeks and months you'll see the rest of the heavens move. After six months the telescope will be worthwhile and reveal that "the moon is awesome."

That's what almanacs have tracked year after year, for two and half-centuries in America alone.

Today the appeal is growing again, this time among people who haven't looked at the skies for generations and no longer need to guide their farms or ships by them. They're attracted not just by the Hubble telescope's views of Jupiter but by basic contemporary trends; it's a naturalistic hobby, good for the family, easily done at home and stimulating to the mind.

Pisa doesn't hesitate to state the eternal draw of the skies: "It's human nature to look up. It's a lifting of the spirit, sounding somewhat metaphysical, to look at those tiny points of light and know that they're very far, far away." What motivates people is "the experience of trying to know what is unknown and to know (one's) place in the universe."

Some of them have recorded that place in almanacs.

You can look it up.

Information from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and You and the Man in the Moon (Down Home Press) was used in this report.

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