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The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers

by Emily Levesque

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-4926-8107-6
Publisher: Sourcebooks

An astronomy professor captures the human stories—from the quirky to the luminous—of her discipline.

Levesque, whose research “is focused on understanding how the most massive stars in the universe evolve and die,” got her first taste of formidable telescopes while a student at MIT. Hardly an amateur endeavor, the author was dealing with serious, massively expensive machines—e.g., at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, Kitt Peak in the Sonoran Desert, and Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Regardless of the gravity of her studies, there is plenty of romance and adventure in the recounting of her nights, whether she is standing in the cold beside the telescope looking through the eyepiece or contending with the giant tarantulas that find a home in the observers’ room. In a bright voice, Levesque covers wide ground, observing details both atmospheric—“the dark cool nights, the quiet hum and shift of moving telescopes”—and mundane: “laboring through the repetitive and tiring efforts required to get the data in the first place.” She tells fun stories of scorpions in the dormitories and swarms of ladybugs plaguing the telescopes, but she also looks at the history of sexism at the observatory and the cultural friction that may erupt around the positioning of a particular telescope. Perhaps where Levesque shines brightest is in her descriptions of the “raw human appeal” that comes from experiencing celestial phenomena, whether it’s accessible (eclipses) or arcane (evidence of gravitational waves and gamma ray bursts). There are moments of gratifying serendipity in discovering a new star classification. However, the author suggests, today’s remote viewing (i.e., the telescope in southern Argentina and the viewer in New York City), while a critical advancement regarding data collection, robs the thrill of making difficult journeys to distant telescopes.

Entertaining, ardent tales from an era of stargazing that may not last much longer.