The Last Stargazer: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers
© 2020 Emily Levesque
Emily Levesque was drawn to the stars from childhood on. Having realized her dream of studying them for a living, in The Last Stargazers she offers readers a glimpse into the workday lives of astronomers across the spectrum (literally, in this case), and reflections on why we should study the stars to begin with. Levesque draws on her own globe-hopping studies and interviews with other astronomers in the field to create this review of the practice and review of modern astronomy.
Although the brain’s mental image of an astronomer might be someone like Galileo peering through a telescope, discovering the moons of Jupiter, precious few astronomers ever do any direct stargazing. It’s rare, Levesque writes, to find an astronomer who is intimately familiar with the night sky the way the public expects – instantly knowing what star is what. Most astronomers today aren’t directly involved in the observation: even if they’re working at an observatory, they’re usually safely ensconced in another room all together, letting a computerized dome do its observations at their remote-controlled bidding. Instead of directly studying the skies, or plate photographs thereof, they’re receiving data and crunching numbers. To a degree, they don’t even need to be there, and one modern practice allows multiple astronomers to timeshare an observatory by submitting research requests: if there are different requests that dovetail nicely (two astronomers wanting to study the same area, but with different exposures, for instance), the telescope can conduct both studies simultaneously and transmit the respective data to their interested parties.
To the stars’ innate ability to ensnare our imagination, and the fascinating ways scientists collect data (including from a flying observatory), Levesque adds colorful background . Because of the nature of their work, observatories are typically built in remote places where light and radio emissions from human activity are minimized, and in the case of optical observatories, the higher they are the better the ‘seeing’ is. This means astronomers often work in nearly undeveloped locations, with many natural hazards: snowstorms, volcanos, wildlife,etc, Astronomers who are physically present at the station are long removed from help, and have to be able to think on their feet in stressed conditions to make ad-hoc adjustments to save either the machines or their data from unexpected events.
As someone perennially fascinated by the stars and the study thereof, I enjoyed The Last Stargazers thoroughly. It’s rare to find a book that demonstrates how astronomy is done, rather than telling the reader what’s been discovered: Mike Brown’s How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming is the only other nonfiction title I’ve read that offers such insight. (Carl Sagan’s Contact got into the nuts and bolts, but it was fiction.) I hope Levesque continues to write in the future: we need more astronomer-authors!