The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily LevesqueThe Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily LevesqueThe Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque

In the very beginning of The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers (2020), Emily Levesque notes that “of the 7.5 billion people on our planet, fewer than fifty thousand are professional astronomers.” As the title implies, and as Levesque explains toward the end of her book, the number is perhaps more likely to shrink rather than rise. Luckily for us, Levesque is one of that select group, and so is able to fill the pages in between beginning and end with a number of entertaining stories about her own experiences, as well as those of her colleagues, along with giving readers tours of some of the best known and most effective telescopes used by today’s (and yesterday’s) astronomers.

I’ll be honest. Early on, while I was enjoying The Last Stargazers enough, it felt a little flat and light on the science. It opened up engagingly and wittily enough, with Levesque fearing she would be known as the “grad student who killed Subaru,” a massive scope boasting the world’s largest single pane of glass and which costs 47, 000 dollars a night to operate. That sort of self-deprecating wit runs throughout the book, adding some welcome levity and creating a personal, conversational tone throughout. Levesque’s prose also remains consistently straightforward, smooth, and clear, all a must for popular science writers. While I wouldn’t have minded a bit more lyricism (she does a nice job when she aims for it) and maybe more frequent dips into the metaphor pool, her prose style is more than up to the task. That aforementioned tone though, at least for about the first third or so, was for me perhaps a little too conversational, more like a chat around a table rather than worthy on its own of a book. It wasn’t on its own, of course, but the balance between the science and the lighter stories of male astronomers peeing into bottles or tarantulas on doorknobs was just a little off.

Emily Levesque

Emily Levesque

But Levesque found that balance after a while, bringing in more detailed science (including her own research on red giants) as she moves back and forth in time from her early undergraduate and graduate days as a student and current time. She ranges across geography as well as time, detailing her time on various telescopes in Hawaii (Mauna Kea), Chile (Campanas Observatory), Arizona (Kitt Peak), New Mexico (The Very Large Array) and even up in the atmosphere aboard a flying observatory (unfortunately, she notes, her time “on” the Hubble Space Telescope didn’t mean putting on a space suit and rocketing into outer space). Levesque’s growth in years is paralleled with chapters on advances in astronomical observation, from optical telescope of ever-increasing mirror size to radio telescopes to the very recent use of gravitational waves as yet another way of peering into the universe. The book get meatier with the scientific detail but also in the way it casts a sharp observational eye (would one expect any less?) on the intersection of society and astronomy via the rampant sexism of early years, the low numbers of non-white astronomers, and the issue of lands sacred to their original inhabitants being coopted for scientific research with little involvement of the original people’s descendants.

With the advances in astronomical observation, though, comes a concomitant loss of the personal, human touch. Whether it’s the disappearance of eye pieces (no more bending over a scope, the camera does the observing) to remote viewing (using your laptop to “observe” via a telescope thousands of miles away) to the newest advances in robotic telescopes, where humans are taken out of the observing (but not the analyzing) loop altogether. Each new advance allows for sharper insights into the universe, but as Levesque notes, “we’re also losing the experiences … the hands-on era of observing — this funny little slice of the human endeavor of science — represents a type of scientific adventure that is starting to dwindle.” As bittersweet as that sounds, Levesque is clear-eyed about the benefits outweighing the cost; The Last Stargazers, as she says, is “not meant to be a paean for the ‘good old days,’” and she “looks forward to reading the successor to this book, written thirty years in the future … sharing wild tales about the challenges of wrangling unfathomable quantities of data,” as opposed to stories of falling off observing platforms or of swarms of ladybugs obscuring a lens. I wouldn’t mind if Levesque herself gave us that book.

Published in August 2020. The story of the people who see beyond the stars—an astronomy book for adults still spellbound by the night sky. Humans from the earliest civilizations through today have craned their necks each night, using the stars to orient themselves in the large, strange world around them. Stargazing is a pursuit that continues to fascinate us: from Copernicus to Carl Sagan, astronomers throughout history have spent their lives trying to answer the biggest questions in the universe. Now, award-winning astronomer Emily Levesque shares the stories of modern-day stargazers in this new nonfiction release, the people willing to adventure across high mountaintops and to some of the most remote corners of the planet, all in the name of science. From the lonely quiet of midnight stargazing to tall tales of wild bears loose in the observatory, The Last Stargazers is a love letter to astronomy and an affirmation of the crucial role that humans can and must play in the future of scientific discovery. In this sweeping work of narrative science, Levesque shows how astronomers in this scrappy and evolving field are going beyond the machines to infuse creativity and passion into the stars and space and inspires us all to peer skyward in pursuit of the universe’s secrets.

About Emily Levesque: Emily Levesque is an astronomy professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her first popular science book, The Last Stargazers, comes out in August of 2020. Emily’s research studies how the most massive stars in the universe evolve and die. She has observed for upward of fifty nights on many of the planet’s largest telescopes and flown over the Antarctic stratosphere in an experimental aircraft for her research. Her academic accolades include the 2014 Annie Jump Cannon Prize, a 2017 Alfred P. Sloan fellowship, a 2019 Cottrell Scholar award, and the 2020 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a PhD in astronomy from the University of Hawaii. When she occasionally stumbles across some spare time, she attempts to spend it traveling, playing violin, skiing, messing with new recipes, or finishing triathlons very slowly. These plans are often waylaid by an old couch and a new book.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I want to read this now, and I’d like to share it with my astronomer friend.

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