Emily Levesque is an astronomy professor at the University of Washington. 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, and the 2020 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Hawaii. The Last Stargazers is her first popular science book and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Last Stargazers?
The Last Stargazers grew out of my own experiences as a professional astronomer and the wonderful storytelling that my astronomy colleagues and I always fall into with each other when we meet at conferences or atop observatory mountains. Hearing people tell true (or half-true!) stories of wacky adventures and misadventures at observatories, quirky discoveries, and some of the incredible things we’ve learned about our universe was my first introduction to what life would be like as a professional scientist. In the book, I use my colleagues’ stories and adventures to weave together the sort of behind-the-scenes look at astronomy that captured my imagination so much when I was first entering the field!
How long did it take you to do the necessary research & interviews and then write The Last Stargazers?
I spent nearly two years interviewing over 100 of my fellow astronomers for this book! Sometimes I slipped interviews into existing work trips to observatories or conferences or to visit colleagues; I got into the habit of carrying my trusty voice recorder with me wherever I went. I also took several trips specifically for my book research. In the end, I wound up traveling all over the world to gather stories for this book, from Arizona and California to Chile and New Zealand. Even researching the adventures turned into an adventure!
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about Astronomers, their work (and maybe your colleagues) during your research?
I had the most fun learning about airborne astronomy. Many of us think of astronomy as happened either on the ground, with big telescopes build atop mountains, or in space with telescopes like Hubble. In truth, there’s a fascinating and creative middle ground of astronomers who put their telescopes on airplanes, attach them to balloons, or place onboard suborbital rockets. I loved hearing about how this type of astronomy worked, and one of my favorite stories in the whole book covers my own experience onboard a flying telescope!
Do you have a favorite portrayal of an astronomer in television or a motion picture? A least favorite? One that is so awful it is amusing? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)
I do always chuckle when someone looks through a telescope and sees some spectacular Hubble-esque color image, or when someone pulls data up on a screen and it’s a big flashing box that reads “WE FOUND ALIENS” or similar. In reality, astronomical data is tough to interpret when we first get it, and we almost never look through an eyepiece or at a screen and shout “eureka!”; there’s a lot of hard work between pointing a telescope at something and interpreting what we found. To be fair, I can’t think of a duller film subject than “statistical data processing” so I can’t blame movies for skipping this step, but it is still funny to see the contrast between how brand-new data looks in a movie and what it’s like in real life.
Same question only for novels. Do you have a favorite, least favorite, completely awful/amusing portrayal of an astronomer in a book?
This probably won’t surprise anyone since I’m an astronomer and author, but I adored Carl Sagan’s Contact. As an astronomer himself he took a lot of care to include little details and broader accuracy about what professional astronomy is like, and he delved into the awesome thought experiment of “what would happen if we actually found aliens?” in a way that’s incredibly satisfying to read.
If you could tell someone currently contemplating a career in Astronomy one thing, what would it be?
Astronomy has given me such an immense amount of joy in my life. It’s the absolute opposite of easy—it can be exhausting, frustrating, stressful, and incredibly difficult to learn and do – but being a scientist has made me indescribably happy and I’m so glad I get to do this job every day. I think the life of a scientist, especially for women in science, sometimes gets excessively portrayed in books or film as a strangely glum and lonely vocation, and I want people to know that while it can be challenging, it can also be fascinating and fun and hilarious.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, also from Sourcebooks! The Last Stargazers was my first non-academic publication and I’ve loved diving into the publishing world. When I went to the Public Library Association meeting in February I was so thrilled to meet other authors and amazed that I could just get copies of their wonderful books! I have an ARC of Why We Swim from that event, and since I’ve been missing swimming during the pandemic it’s been a fantastic book to savor bit by bit in the evenings (I tend to inhale books, so being able to enjoy every little bit of a book is a rare treat!)
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I loved big thick immersive books; I know this is going to sound bizarre but I did a whole eighth-grade report on Moby Dick! Still, I think my favorite childhood book was Watership Down. I found it after tearing through the Redwall series and read it until my copy fell apart, and I remember loving that it kept the fantastical details (like talking animals) that make childrens’ books so fascinating without infantilizing its readers; there’s some intense stuff in there…
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
I was always sheepish about, to steal a phrase from The Princess Bride, “kissing books”, but it was less about the kissing and more about the worry that these books weren’t “serious”! I didn’t have any particularly embarrassing or shameful book, but I was definitely shy about books that included romance or that seemed frivolous. My mom is a retired librarian and she was always great about making sure we had each year’s Newbury and Caldecott winners in the house along with beautifully-written and enriching literature for every age level. I loved having access to these, but it also meant it sometimes felt a little rebellious to go “well, right now I just wanna read Babysitters’ Club #34…”
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
It’s impossible to pick favorites so I’ll go with “influential”.
Carl Sagan: no real surprise there, I suppose!
Erma Bombeck: I first read her as a kid, way before I had any personal connection to most of her material, but I absolutely loved her sense of the absurd and her ability to find the quirkiness in day-to-day shared experiences. It’s exactly my kind of humor.
Edward Abbey: He’s a controversial guy, but his books opened me up to a lot of ideas I’ve never known much about before reading him. I also love his writing style – there’s something so conversational and plainspoken but vivid about how he uses words and sets scenes. The first book of his I read was Desert Solitaire and there were moments when I wanted to climb into the book and argue with him until I changed his mind and moments when I wanted to send excerpts to everyone I knew. There’s something powerful in being able to write like that.
Patrick Rothfuss: He’s another author whose writing I admire because of his sheer facility with words, and I love falling into sweeping meticulously-built worlds like the one he creates in The Kingkiller Chronicle.
Philip Pullman: this is another case of admiring the fundamental writing, but I also love the story he told in the His Dark Materials series; I read it for the first time in middle school and moments from it have stuck indelibly in my head. There’s also something I really like about reading great fiction books aimed at young-adult audiences even as a not-young adult reader. There’s brilliant adult fiction out there, of course, but my favorite books usually care less about being Very Serious Literature and more about just telling a compelling and immersive story.
What is a book you've faked reading?
There are some very popular series that I just kind of fizzled out on halfway through. I never made it through all of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, but it’s such an inescapable staple of geek canon that I’ve learned almost all of the references through social interactions and jokes. I really should go back and finish reading it at some point!
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book only for the cover, but as I’ve transitioned more and more to e-books I’ve started to miss the satisfaction of having a series of books that I can line up on a shelf and look at as a cohesive well-designed set—this is especially true after writing The Last Stargazers; I adore my book’s cover design and can now newly appreciate how much work goes into covers on the designers’ end, so seeing their body of work over a whole series is now extra-satisfying! My husband I combined our Harry Potter books when we moved in together, and through some weird quirk neither of us still had our original copy of Philosopher's Stone. It’s a six-book set on our shelf right now and it drives me nuts; I may need to get my hands on the first book just so that it looks right!
Is there a book that changed your life?
Carl Sagan’s Contact. It gave me a vivid view of a professional astronomer’s world and helped me to imagine what it would be like to work in the field during such an incredible discovery. I still have my beat-up original copy with pages falling out; I must have read it a dozen times growing up.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Yep, you guessed it: Contact again!
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I’m actually a big re-reader; I love reading familiar books over and over again, revisiting the characters and places that I know I enjoy, and finding new things I never caught before. When I think about coming at a book again for the first time I think of immersive series like Harry Potter or The Kingkiller Chronicle or His Dark Materials that really transports you into another world. I entered some of those worlds as a kid, and I think I’ve hung onto my kids’ impression of them; it’d be interesting to come to them fresh as an adult and see how my perception changes.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Getting to spend time with my whole family, enjoy a great meal with good company, and do some work on the scientific research I love is a pretty simple ask but that really would be a perfect day for me! I guess if we’re being idealistic I’d teleport everyone to Rome for that great meal and then to the mountaintop of one of my favorite observatories in Arizona or Chile or similar. Observatories are very difficult places to bring personal visitors or guests to just because of the sheer travel time and logistics involved, so I’ve never had my husband or parents come along for an actual observing trip. On a perfect day, I’d love to have an observatory all to myself for a night so that I could show everyone things like the beautiful sunsets, the one-of-a-kind world-class telescopes, the quirks of these unique and faraway places, and the heartstopping sight of the night sky in a truly dark and remote place.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
“If you could snap your fingers and have any job besides scientist, what would it be?” Astronomy, and science in general, can be a very intense and unusual career and it can oftentimes seem like someone’s entire identity, but I think if people asked scientists what other jobs they would like they’d get a surprising range of answers! Lots of the scientists I know are deeply artistic and creative people, or talented athletes, or love to craft or cook or juggle, and I think it’s good to see that kind of variety in who people are. I have a background as a performer, I play violin with the University of Washington orchestras and I was a theater kid, and I’ve always found the “performing” parts of science to be especially: I like giving a live talk to a big crowd and using everything from words to pictures to sounds to jokes to spark their interest and teach them about science by telling them a story. With this in mind, if I was picking a job outside science I’d love to go into some aspect of professional filmmaking: writing or directing or something else that involves crafting a story with the immense breadth of tools you have at your disposal in that medium!
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m continuing my research on how stars work, teaching (virtually for now!) at the University of Washington, and I just finished filming an astronomy lecture series for The Great Courses. That course will be out next spring and if you’re interested in more details you can follow me on Twitter at @emsque or check out thelaststargazers.com, where I’ll be posting future news! I’m also starting to imagine ideas for what might come next after The Last Stargazers, whether that’s a future book or some new way of sharing the stories of life as an astronomer, so hopefully, I’ll have more exciting projects to share soon!