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BOOK REVIEW:

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

Halley's Comet is quite possibly the most famous, and infamous, comet currently known. It is a “periodic” comet, coming close enough to the earth for viewing approximately every 75 years. Over the centuries, the appearance of Halley’s Comet has been erroneously blamed for earthquakes, illnesses (including the Black Plague in England), the births of two-headed animals and the assassination of Julius Caesar. The comet was last visible from earth in 1986. Early that year, a toddler named Emily Levesque looked through her older brother’s telescope at Halley’s Comet. It was her first step in a nearly lifelong pursuit of viewing the wonders and mysteries held by our night skies. Levesque details her adventures, and those of others, travelling the globe to observe the heavens in her new book.

Levesque, who currently works as a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, recounts her pursuit from a young age to become an astronomer. She also describes the challenges she and her colleagues have faced and overcome to spend the night observing at telescopes all over the world. These challenges include, but are not limited to, working through the night from sunset to sunrise; long, arduous travel to remote locations; the potential for altitude sickness; inclement weather (which can ruin even the best laid plans); and the local residents (both human and animal) who can interfere with observatory data collection in any number of surprising ways. The result is a book that is engaging, personal and personable, sprinkled with fascinating science and an enticing look at a field that most people know little or nothing about. Levesque mentions early in the book how films and television regularly trot out characters who are purported to be astronomers, but that they rarely resemble or represent the real thing or the work they actually do.

The Last Stargazers also provides readers with a recent history of astronomy, and the technological developments that have advanced our study of the night sky and how those same technologies may have dire effects on the field as capabilities increase commensurately, and as funding disappears forcing difficult, and often unnecessary, choices.

While Levesque touches on some serious topics, The Last Stargazers is clearly intended to be a fun read. Later in the book, she states that her interest was “the quirks and hijinks and wacky stories that come from the odd type of work we do.” In this respect, the book is an unqualified success. There is no doubt that this will inspire people, of all ages, to seek out a telescope of any size to make their own observations of the wonders that appear during the night sky. And it would not be surprising at all if someone younger, although older than the toddler Levesque was when she viewed Halley’s Comet, to be inspired by this book and become an astronomer as well. 

Check the author interview here.

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