By Emily Levesque, Oneworld Publications, August 6, 2020, 1786078236
The Last Stargazers is an excellent story of Emily Levesque’s path to passion for astrophysics and astronomy. I related to it, because at a young age, I got rapture of the bits, just as she as she was star struck. And, the story is written extremely well even if you aren’t a nerd.
As a nerd, though, I enjoyed her fun anecdotes: telescopes getting shot at, tarantulas in the control room, and almost breaking a 600 ton telescope. From past to future, the history of modern astronomy is told with whit and charm. I’m sure it will be a book that turns kids on to astronomy.
[k61] “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”
This phrase, repeated by weary IT specialists the world over, had possibly never prompted such horror.
[k65] Second, the equipment in question was the Subaru Telescope, a 630-ton beast housed one floor above my head in a fourteen-story dome.
[k106] If I called off the night, I’d be giving up what could well be my only opportunity to ever study these galaxies, losing a linchpin of my thesis research in the process.
Of course, having the largest piece of glass in the world sitting in pieces on the dome floor wouldn’t help matters either.
[k135] I was becoming an astronomer because I wanted to explore the universe and learn the stories of the night sky; beyond those broad strokes, I wasn’t particularly fussed with what the exact job description of “astrophysicist” entailed.
[k138] I did not daydream about being the final decision point for keeping one of the world’s largest telescopes intact.
[k205] I’d been enraptured by space for as long as I could remember, but the original spark could be traced back to early 1986, when Halley’s Comet made its most recent close flyby of the earth.
[k215] In keeping with their lifelong habits, once my parents got into something, they were into it, full bore. When that something was astronomy, my dad scraped up funds to buy a backyard Celestron C8, a squat orange cylinder with an eight-inch mirror, and built his own table to mount it on along with some added shelving to store eyepieces, equipment, and a copy of Norton’s Star Atlas.
[k301] Things like engineering or biology at least had obvious endpoints and employment options, but none of us, myself included, had much idea of where the career path for a physicist, let alone an astrophysicist, would head.
[k365] Arriving at MIT, I was delighted to be surrounded by the camaraderie of a few thousand other science-loving geeks and immediately declared myself a physics major. There was just one catch: I’d never actually taken a physics class before.
[k377] Physics, as it turned out, was hard. Really hard.
My only consolation was that it at least appeared to be hard for everyone.
[k394] MIT was my first real indication that the road to brilliance sometimes took a few turns that steered well clear of common sense.
[k426] It took just one night of observing for me to get hooked. I loved it.
[k494] Dinner on Kitt Peak wrapped up in time for everyone to head outside and watch the sunset together before scattering to the telescope, a time-honored tradition of astronomers everywhere.
[k515] At age eighty-six, George was nominally retired but in the uniquely academic sense of the word: he may have sported a professor emeritus designation, but he still came to work at the University of Washington astronomy department almost daily.
[k693] The methods for doing this can be as primitive as a reinforced board stretched between two walkways, as was the case for the thirty-six-inch telescope at Lick Observatory in central California. There, an observer would reach the walkway, then straddle the board and scoot out into the center of the dome, a solid thirty feet above the floor, to reach the prime focus cage.
[k712] Winter nights were indisputably the best for observing from a scientific perspective–the nights were long and dark, the cold air crisp and clear–but the misery of spending ten hours shivering away at the prime focus couldn’t be denied.
[k875] Few people today mourn the loss of fiddly and hard-to-quantify photographic plates, frigid hours in a cold dome, or men-only observatory dorms.
[k1055] Chile is unarguably the telescope capital of the world; there are so many observatories scattered throughout the western foothills of the Andes that many can be spotted from another observatory’s summit.
[k1094] So after being assigned a night–if you’re lucky–based on moon phase, existing travel plans, and the season when your targets are observable, you’re left hoping that on your specific evening, there’ll be no wind, no rain, no fog, no low clouds, no high clouds, and if the planet’s atmosphere could stay as still as possible over your mountaintop, that’d be great too.
[k1247] The 3:00 a.m. haze in particular is what makes music choice utterly critical to observing runs. Almost any astronomer you ask will tell you that playing the right music is a vitally important ingredient for any observing run, to the point that it acquires an almost talismanic quality.
[k1264] Astronomers span an impressively broad range of music tastes. (It’s also worth noting the disproportionate number of astronomers with some degree of musical training, ranging from casual hobbyists to astronomer and rock star Brian May, the guitarist for Queen.)
[k1290] riot of stars overhead on a Southern Hemisphere night is spectacular, particularly for those of us used to the north. Thanks to the tilt of the earth’s axis, northern locales see the outskirts of our Milky Way, while those lucky enough to be in the south are looking directly toward the star-stuffed center of the galaxy.
[k1299] In a place as dark as Las Campanas, the net effect is a sky so rich with stars, it’s nearly three-dimensional.
[k1370] Meyer-Womble Observatory in Colorado, near the summit of Mount Evans in the Rocky Mountains at 14,148 feet, was bombarded by wind gusts as high as 95 miles per hour during the winter of 2011.
[k1374] (The story ended sadly. After years of effort to replace the dome and battles with contractors, the University of Denver, faced with a lack of sufficient support for restoring the dome, recently decided to demolish and remove the telescope.)
[k1548] Pete was an operator for the 300 Foot radio telescope at Green Bank, nestled in the midst of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia.
[k1766] Altitude alone can be hazardous. At many thousands of feet above sea level, astronomers often grapple with the physical effects of the thin air. Splitting headaches, dizziness, exhaustion, and impaired judgment are all unwelcome symptoms in the midst of trying to perform challenging scientific research.
[k1901] There’s rarely a sign that lights up for women and blinks out THIS IS SEXISM. THIS PERSON IS BEING SEXIST RIGHT NOW.
[k1968] The discovery spawned entire new subdisciplines of physics, and Vera went on to eventually win just about every prestigious prize offered to a professional astronomer (with the exception of the Nobel in Physics, which has long had a sizeable blind spot for groundbreaking research done by women).
[k1985] When I first entered the field, it was all too easy to convince myself that gender must have very little to do with astronomy.
When I first heard stories of Ann and Vera and their contemporaries, my brain reflexively placed them in ancient history.
[k1994] Astronomy is undeniably different today; according to the American Institute of Physics, women earned 40 percent of the 186 astronomy PhDs awarded in 2017. However, the improvement in gender representation is still starkly absent along other axes. Women may have represented 40 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in 2017, but Hispanic women comprised only 4 percent, and African American women made up 2 percent. The 2007 Nelson Diversity Survey found that among the top forty astronomy departments in the United States, only 1 percent of professors of any gender were Black and another 1 percent were Hispanic.
[k2009] The Hubble Space Telescope recently switched to a dual-anonymous system in its yearly review of observing proposals after an internal study found that success rates were consistently lower for proposals led by women than those led by men; after removing names from the proposals, the percentile difference between genders disappeared.
[k2079] Finally, observatory mountaintops can have spiritual and cultural significance to local indigenous populations.
[k2168] Thayne Currie saw it differently. An astronomer working on Mauna Kea and the Big Island in 2015, he was a staunch supporter of building the TMT but also adamant that astronomers should advocate for and justify their plans to anyone who would listen.
[k2172] His sense was that many of the protestors’ actions stemmed from a sincere desire to protect Mauna Kea, and he earnestly believed that communication and compromise, with both sides willing to listen to each other, was the only acceptable way forward.
[k2225] In a community that so deeply values the planet we’re on, the summits we visit, and the human curiosity we bring to the skies, I have to hope we can find a way to respect and share our own humanity, our knowledge of the cosmos, and our love for the mountains that make our work possible. They’re the windows we’re able to climb to that give us a glimpse of the universe.
[k2416] The slowest pulsars emit a few radio pulses per minute, while the fastest emit hundreds of pulses in a single second, spinning faster than a hummingbird beats its wings. The discovery was recognized with a Nobel Prize (although once again, the committee avoided giving the prize to a woman, instead recognizing her thesis adviser and another colleague), and Jocelyn went on to a long and distinguished research career, receiving a 2018 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to recognize her scientific achievements.
[k2889] Still, when I raised the subject, most people’s first instinct was to talk about the beauty, the emotion, the almost spiritual ethereality of the whole event.
Astronomers’ understanding of the mathematical poetry and scientific elegance behind an eclipse seemed to only deepen their ability to soak up its beauty.
[k3825] Since I’d just slammed enough caffeine to jump-start a wooly mammoth, I was left twitching in my living room, geared up for an observing run that was almost certainly not going to happen. Lesson learned: coffee after confirming the night is on.
[k3840] Amid the day-to-day normalcy of your own couch or office, it’s all too easy to lose track of the reality that your occasional clicks and keystrokes on a computer screen are actually physically moving a many-ton instrument thousands of miles away.
[k3882] It’s an undeniably luxurious way to observe. Waking up to a bundle of new data in your email inbox is certainly more restful than powering through the 3:00 a.m. haze and patchy clouds in the hopes of maybe squeezing out whatever scraps of data you can manage on your preassigned night. At the same time, queue observing removes the astronomer from their observations by one more degree.
[k3909] I’d heard from someone that another queue-based telescope in Chile prevented visiting astronomers from so much as touching the telescope controls: everything was done by the operators and telescope staff. Supposedly, they’d installed a switch labeled “astronomer” for visiting classical observers to use that could be flipped back and forth but wasn’t actually attached to anything. Its main purpose was to give the people who’d insisted on being present for their observations something to do.