John Read’s journey into astronomy began with a small and rickety telescope purchased at his local pharmacy. He found it fascinating to observe the Moon and Saturn with its rings using such meagre equipment. He decided to share these views with others by writing his first book, 50 Things to See with a Small Telescope, an easy-to-understand beginner’s guide which he self-published and sold through Amazon starting in 2013.
Since then, he has written a number of other books on space for children including 50 Things to See on the Moon (Formac Publishing). In 2020, two more books are coming out—50 Animals That Have Been to Space, which he co-wrote with his wife Jennifer Read, and 50 Space Missions That Changed the World, due out before Christmas. Both books are published by Formac. Besides writing, John works as the telescope operator at Saint Mary’s Burke-Gaffney Observatory.
In this Q and A, John talks about his love of space, his collaboration with wife Jennifer, and what you can see in the night sky right now.
How did you get interested in space?
My dad was an agricultural salesman and he moved our family to Prince Edward Island from Nova Scotia while I was in Grade 4. That’s when I started watching Star Trek and reading old National Geographic magazines about space. I was probably about 10 at the time.
As an adult, I bought a cheap telescope and pointed it at Saturn. We were living in California then—I was in corporate finance at Clorox—and my interest just grew and grew into larger telescopes.
The first book (50 Things to See with a Small Telescope) sold pretty well, about 1,000 copies the first year it was out. I thought that was pretty cool. And the next Christmas it sold maybe a few more thousand copies.
But then it kept selling and selling and that let me know it had business potential. I had it translated in 10 different languages (including German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese) and I created a southern hemisphere edition.
So you quit your job at Clorox?
The growth was exponential—I’ve probably sold 100,000 copies of that book now.
And my job in finance. I realized I wasn’t 100 per cent there. My mind was occupied with all things space. So I applied to the astrophysics program at Saint Mary’s University and decided to write more books. We moved back to Halifax in 2016.
What is with the ’50 things’ approach?
I think of it as a brand to tie all the books together. I look at it from a marketing perspective and that’s the hook. It originated as 10 telescope targets per season, plus the eight planets, Sun, and Moon.
The book that’s just out is called 50 Animals That Have Been to Space. Why did you collaborate with your wife Jennifer on this one?
Jennifer is the animal buff. When she was in University in California, she was on movie sets making sure the animals were being well taken care of. She also grew up on a ranch.
Jennifer did most of the research while I worked full time on my studies. She found out all the facts and got the photographs. Then we kind of matched everything to my writing style in the other books. This was a unique case—the intersection of our two hobbies, space and animals.
Was there anything surprising that you found out in writing this book?
Well, what’s surprising to me is how many animals have gone into space, and how many different species — they’ve sent up scorpions, snails, shrimp, jellyfish, newts… The Soviets sent turtles flying around the moon. Mice have been in space to see what happens when are struck with cosmic rays. When a cosmic ray hits a black mouse, its hair turns white … they’re like geiger counter for space radiation.
In the early days, space was an unknown frontier, so animals were sent as biological samples, everything from fruit flies to guinea pigs. Later, the Russians sent up dogs to test life support systems. The Americans sent up monkeys and chimps which could pull levers and press buttons … and this happened right before human flight.
What’s it like releasing a book during the pandemic?
Releasing a book during the pandemic was tough. Our official launch date was March 28th, so we had several events canceled, including a major release at the Halifax Public Library. Instead we held a reading contest, offering free ebook copies of the book. Some people liked the book so much they bought the paperback as well. I’ve also had several teachers reach out to me about getting the book for their classrooms.
You write fiction too?
Between my first and second space books, I wrote two sci-fi novels —The Martian Conspiracy and Callisto Deception. I may pick that up again but for now I have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed, writing is really my only paying job. I don’t mind waiting on the sci-fi, since I enjoy writing non-fiction just as much.
What has life been like for you during this time?
Well, I’ve got to say that Jennifer has been super supportive and handling the kids while I finished up classes. Untill mid-April, the astrophysics program kept going at me 110 per cent.
Now, I’ve been writing pretty much full time. I work intensely in the morning while Jenn is home schooling. We try to get the kids outside in the afternoons.
At night, when there’s clear skies, I’m doing astronomy. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I’d like to return to Herring Cove and set up my telescope on the wharf and take photographs.
What can you see in night sky at this time of year?
To astronomers, spring is referred to as galaxy season. You point your telescope toward Virgo and look for galaxies. There’s lots to see from the city as well, even without a telescope. In the morning, you can see Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. In the evening, the bright star you see in the west is Venus.
– In conversation with Marilyn Smulders