Why do we stargaze?

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque is a book that deals more with the down-to-earth practical mechanics of being an astronomer than it does the objects they study cast all across the sky. 

Emerging technologies are changing so many facets of our lives and the field of astronomy is no different. The heart of Levesque’s book is capturing stories from an era that is soon behind us. New telescopes and the mechanics of observing have likely changed even since its publication now that https://webb.nasa.gov/ is live.  

How does one become an astronomer in the first place? I suppose that’d be a common question, particularly if you’re writing a book that is more about astronomers than astronomy. 

“In all the time I spent interviewing friends and colleagues for this book, I never once asked anyone how they got interested in astronomy. I wasn’t writing about our origin stories; I was interested in the quirks and hijinks and wacky stories that come from the odd type of work we do. The vast majority of astronomers that I spoke to told me anyway.” (~Emily Levesque)

When Levesque talks about how seeing the sky made her want to become an astronomer even without knowing exactly what that meant, I understood the appeal. “Space is cool!”

When I was young, we lived in a sparsely populated rural area in Nebraska where the lack of light pollution made the night sky especially beautiful. Once, my father and I were driving home on a particularly clear night when he pulled over so we could lie on the hood of the car to admire the sky. The story goes that I got scared by the enormously bright sky, that it was too big and made me feel too small. I’m not sure I’ve completely gotten over being awestruck by a bright night sky, but sadly truly clear nights are rare where I live now. 

About midway into the book, she talks about the graduate student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was so integral in the discovery of pulsars. The pulsar has featured heavily in sci-fi shows and any time there is a kernel of real science in science fiction I think it’s delightful. 

Pulsars are the sorts of things I had been expecting Levesque to cover in her book. While she touches on some of the discoveries made, she does so mainly in relation to the methods of observing and uses for the different types of telescopes. I wanted more information about red supergiants and galaxy formations and things of that nature. The controversies surrounding the Mauna Kea Observatories’ ecological and cultural impact were interesting and important to consider but felt much more grounded on Earth than what I had in mind when I picked up this book. 

One of my favorite anecdotes wasn’t about the astronomers at all, but about how they’d discovered how to measure gravitational waves. These waves squeeze and compress spacetime.

“Gravitational waves fall into that wonderful realm of physics where things exist simply because the math of the universe insists they should.”

~ Emily Levesque

Scientists have known about them since Einstein but have only recently been able to detect them. There are now things called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO) scattered throughout the world that detect them. 

I enjoyed her stories about studying the stars and the anecdotal tidbits about astronomers’ telescope time. Levesque’s book demystifies the profession and shares insights into the life of an astronomer while showcasing some of the techniques and technology used over the years that have increased our knowledge of the cosmos. The human side of science shines through. And don’t forget pulsars! Pulsars are fascinating. Below are some links about them:

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