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:

A Room of One’s Own

Thinking about women and stories led me to revisit Virginia Woolf’s book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This book is derived from lectures she gave at Cambridge women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, in 1928 on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’.  It has been an influential work in feminist studies with a central theme that women need a room in which to write. The room is both literal and figurative. Woolf maintains that women of the past had neither the space, time – nor financial means to acquire either – in order to pursue writing.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor…”

– Virginia Woolf

Woolf begins by comparing the women’s college to the men’s, the decadence and luxury afforded to the men’s college, including the size of their libraries – finding the women’s college lacking. She doesn’t do this in a malicious way, or in any way that’s rude to either college. She doesn’t push to attack the men for having so much, nor shame the women for having so little. 

What she does focus on, is the lack of opportunity. While discussing famous women authors of the 18th century, Austen and Brontë, she notes how one of them wrote on small scraps of paper, constantly hiding her scribbling away because what was a woman doing, writing? 

If women, perhaps, did write… well then what was the point? Certainly anything they wrote about wasn’t as important as what men wrote about. War and sports outweigh fashion and drawing rooms, regardless of how steeped either are in observations of human nature.

And yet, creativity and persistence will find a way.  On Jane Austen, Woolf remarked “here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That’s how Shakespeare wrote.” 

Another one of Woolf’s observations struck me as interesting. A flaw she found in some of the earlier women writers was that they didn’t write in their own voice. That whether their work implied they were protesting that they were as good as any man, or if it were self-deprecating in saying they were ‘only a woman’, she concludes that one had “altered her values in deference to the opinions of others.” 

How many women still do a version of this today in the work place?  How magnified is this for women of color? How many women modulate their voice in order to be heard, in order to not be vilified?

Woolf herself comes from an upper-middle class British family, so tends to focus on the same. She does talk of a woman named Mrs. Aphra Behn, who made a living writing in the 17th century. Mrs. Behn was not of the upper-middle class, but a woman who made a living writing out of necessity to support herself. A feat as it wasn’t a common practice for women to be educated, particularly those not in the upper class. “She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote.” By being paid, she showed that women could make a living by writing.

“Money dignifies what is made frivolous if unpaid for.”  

– Virginia Woolf

But is it just about a room? Space to write? “Women never have half an hour… that they may call their own”, a quote Woolf attributes to Florence Nightingale, resonates today. Not just with me, but with other women juggling life demands during these pandemic days. Sonia Feertchak suggests that “digital space has replaced the physical one” and that working from home has most of us dividing up not only our space, but our time. 1

I think the demands on our time isn’t necessarily a women-specific issue today. In addition to work and family we have dozens more mundane tasks to deal with every day that are soul-sucking time-wasters – planning meals, exercising, calling the cable company, preparing for holidays, laundry, running errands – the minutiae becomes an avalanche, crowding out space even for those of us who do have a room of our own.  Keeping the room and remaining solvent is another matter.

In chapter five, Woolf starts with a brighter outlook. She considers the library of her day and all the books written by women that she didn’t find in the libraries of the past. 

How far have we come in the past 90+ years? I am thankful to see more and more women authors in the ranks of the top sellers, but it doesn’t seem like a level playing field yet. And what about all the voices who still don’t have a room of their own?

You can read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ free at Project Gutenberg. https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791h.html

  1. www.philonomist.com

Army Nurse and Social Reformer

The Army Nurse Corp wasn’t founded until 1901, but women have tended the sick and wounded in various capacities since the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, Dorothea Dix was appointed as the Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army. I was initially drawn to her story as she was first a teacher, like my Aunt Melissa who trained as a teacher before she became a nurse. However, Dorothea Dix’s teacher and nurse stories are subplots to her main focus of advocating on behalf of the mentally ill, the disabled, and the imprisoned. 

Dorothea Dix wasn’t formally trained as a nurse. Her experience lay more in advocating for the mentally ill.  In fact, her stint in the war seems to have been one of her least successful endeavors. She was at odds with other administrators and doctors alike.  

Edith Horton, author of ‘A Group of Famous Women’ said “Many of the surgeons and nurses disliked her. They said she was severe, that she would not listen to any advice nor take any suggestions. The real cause of her unpopularity, however, was that she demanded of all about her entire unselfishness and strict devotion to work. Very severe was she with careless nurses or rough surgeons.” 

Sidenote: Edith Horton’s work was originally published in 1914. Reading the foreword and introduction of her work, I can see her intent was to instill a certain ideal of morality and fortitude. Considering her intended audience, I’m taking her opinion of Dorothea Dix with a grain of salt.

Born in Maine, Dorothea moved in with her grandmother at a young age. Accounts seem to differ on why she didn’t remain with her father – one source suggested alcoholism while another talked of him having a fixation on writing and publishing religious tracts. Whatever the cause, living with her grandmother doesn’t sound like it was much of a picnic. Stern and demanding, her grandmother seems to have molded Dorothea into a formidable force of nature.

As a young woman, Dorothea began tutoring children. She expanded this to founding a school and writing a book ‘Conversations on Common Things’.  At one point, she arranged to teach Sunday school to twenty women incarcerated in Cambridge. This seems to be the catalyst to her championing improved conditions for the mentally ill. When this shift in her life happened, she was thirty-nine years old.

Her ability to effect change and bring attention to the horrid conditions during a time when women couldn’t vote shows she’s a political savvy activist. Whether due to the actual horrible conditions she brought to light, the force of her personality, or a combination of both, she convinced the state legislature to improve conditions.

When Henry B. Stanton went before the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1837 to demand that the state urge Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he had no qualms about his right to speak.” I AM A MAN: and I address myself to MEN,” he declared. But Dorothea Dix, appealing in writing to the same legislative body six years later on behalf of the insane poor, meekly apologized for her intrusion.


After that first success in Massachusetts, she spent years working to establish more humane conditions for those in mental asylums. She had several successes in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Illinois.  

One of the first hospitals she helped establish in 1848 was the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (aka. New Jersey State Hospital). She died there in 1887. It is still in operation today – Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Additional material: