What an amazing talk from Prof. Emily Levesque tonight, zooming in from Seattle, and running through some ideas and themes from her book “The Last Stargazers”, published just before the pandemic.

The first line in her book “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” sounds very familiar to most of us I suspect, as we interact with the various electronic devices that surround us, but for Emily this was the question asked of her as she was sitting and observing at the giant Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea when it suddenly stopped working!

Emily then took us through her first visit to a professional observatory, Kitt Peak, and the tales she was told of scorpions up trouser legs, racoons in the dome and astronomers being struck by lightning, and how, years later, these stories formed the basis of her book.

Buy the book

Buy Emily’s book

The book is based on conversations Emily had with around 100 of her observing colleagues, discussing themes such as stories you have heard, what would surprise people about our jobs, and how has astronomy changed since you began?

Emily described the weird radio bursts discovered at Parkes Observatory in Australia and how the vast majority were eventually tracked down to people opening microwave ovens in nearby buildings before the “ping”….except those that weren’t, and which were found to be true astrophysical radio bursts which are still not fully understood. What with premature microwave ovens, squirrels with radio trackers affecting radio telescopes and ravens simply wanting a drink but creating gravitational waves in the process, one wonders how astronomy manages to move forward?

She then told us about her exploits aboard Nasa’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) as part of her research studying very cold massive stars, and other stories about airborne astronomy. We also learned about George Carruthers who is the patent holder for ultraviolet detectors (as used in Hubble) and who designed and built a UV telescope that was taken to the surface on the moon on Apollo 16 to take UV images of earth and young stars in the Milky Way…. and it’s still there!

We all complain about atmospheric conditions causing us problems as we observe and image, but maybe not on the scale of the Mt. St. Helens eruption to those downwind.

Emily described one of the most significant changes in astronomy recently as being the move to digital imaging and the amazing detail and clarity that such imaging gives. I think we can see that ourselves in the amazing images that are being produced by members of our society which would have been impossible not too many years ago.

Finally Emily noted that a big change was the automation of observing, without the need for the astronomer to be behind a telescope, giving examples of Vera Rubin, Hubble , JWST, where the astronomers could access data from the scopes from anywhere in the world. Again, within the society we see this progression, with some happy to stand outside, look up and take the whole sky in, others with equipment to gather more photons, magnify more, look deeper into space, and still others with pretty much automated telescopes, observatories, and a warm, dry place to run it all from. It’s great for us amateurs to be able to pick and choose how we want to do astronomy and what equipment (or none) we want to use in doing so.

Tosh White