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The Last Stargazers

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

Emily Levesque
Sourcebooks
2020
336 pp.
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When a young person imagines an astronomer, they likely picture a white-coated individual who spends each night peering at the sky through a small refracting telescope on a roof. But, as Emily Levesque recounts in The Last Stargazers, the reality of being a professional astronomer is very different.
Observational astronomers must apply months in advance for competitive time on a limited number of giant telescopes in remote locations, perhaps securing just a few nights per year. After traveling to the observatory, they must work through the night from a control room, trying to collect enough photons to produce a result. The weather is a constant threat—if it is unfavorable, weeks of work and travel could result in no data at all. Levesque successfully captures the strange mix of excitement, impatience, camaraderie, and sleep deprivation that I recognized from my own observing trips and relates numerous anecdotes about uncooperative wildlife, malfunctioning equipment, natural disasters, and idiosyncratic observatory staff.

The book is partly autobiographical—Levesque is a professional astronomer who studies massive stars—weaving the author’s experiences with highlights from interviews. Historical tales of famous observers, such as Edwin Hubble and Vera Rubin, include a discussion of how many female astronomers had to overcome gender bias. Levesque’s emphasis is on optical astronomy, although she does mention radio telescopes and the new methods of gravitational wave astronomy, with a disappointingly heavy focus on American astronomers and U.S. facilities.

The book’s final chapters cover recent shifts toward remote-controlled, queue-scheduled, or fully automated observing. While such methods are cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly, they do diminish the drama and wonder of professional astronomical observing. The Last Stargazers may ultimately become a historical record of a dying way of doing science.

About the author

The reviewer is a senior editor at Science.