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How ‘The Last Stargazers’ are changing astronomy

In Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky, Victorian era astronomer Henrietta Leavitt calls Radcliffe College “basically Harvard in skirts,” and also proclaims: “Lucky for us, the universe doesn’t much care what you wear.”

You don’t have to tell astronomer Dr. Emily Levesque. She’s researched red supergiants — enormous, dying stars — in flannel pajama pants and penguin T-shirts from a control room or her cousin’s kitchen table. In her new book, The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, Levesque tells the stories of the humans behind the telescopes. “I think it’s really important for people to recognize that science is done by people,” she told Digital Trends.

Astronomy has changed a lot since Henrietta Leavitt’s days, when astronomers captured celestial objects on glass plates. Now Levesque might wake up to an email with all her data waiting, thanks to what’s known as “queue observing.” With this method, astronomers map out exact plans for what they want a telescope pointed at and for how long, then hand them off to the observatory. A telescope operator still needs to be present, but the astronomer might be halfway across the planet. “It’s a really exciting time for the science,” she said. “It enables us to do all this really cool new stuff, but it does mean that where we are in the process is changing.”

To explain how different an astronomer’s job looks today from just a few decades ago, Levesque highlights some memorable stories from her colleagues, like how they used to wear flight suits to stay warm in observatories’ chilly domes. In 1980, Doug Geisler lost six hours of observing time when Mount St. Helens erupted. In his notes, he recorded the reason as “Volcano (good excuse, huh?).”

“They did it in spite of all these extra hurdles that the sexism of the time had placed in front of them.”

But astronomers’ trials aren’t all mischievous moths (they find their way into telescopes quite frequently) and the occasional scorpion (observatories are often found in deserts, due to their remoteness and weather conditions). Levesque writes about the women that came in between Leavitt’s career and hers, and the challenges they faced.

Because observatories are often far from civilization and astronomers work at night, the facilities will often include dorms. Up until the mid-1960s, women weren’t officially allowed to stay at the ones at California’s Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories. Astronomers called the dorms “the Monastery.” In the late 1940s, Barbara Cherry Schwarzschild worked alongside her astrophysicist husband, Martin. It was Barbara who knew the ins and outs of the telescope, Levesque said. In the 1950s and ’60s, Margaret Burbidge and Elizabeth Griffin also took advantage of their husbands’ telescope time.

“I wanted to tell their stories just because they’re brilliant scientists, and the observing that they did was really fascinating,” said Levesque. “And they did it in spite of all these extra hurdles that the sexism of the time had placed in front of them. And those hurdles may be different today, but they’re also not gone.”

It was the sight of another female astronomer, Heidi Hammel, that cemented Levesque’s interest in the stars at an early age. In 1994, Hammel and her fellow scientists were gathered at a computer, looking at an image from the Hubble Space Telescope of a comet that had smacked into Jupiter. “The thing that got me about seeing Heidi Hammel and all of the other astronomers studying Shoemaker-Levy 9 was they seemed so happy,” said Levesque. At the time, when her classmates were teasing her for her love of science, Levesque was wondering if anyone else was as excited about it as she was. She had her answer.

Jupiter in infrared, Shoemaker–Levy 9 collision Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

It’s reminiscent of a more recent image of a different woman looking at another object. Computer scientist Katie Bouman created an algorithm that helped capture the first image of a black hole. Her excitement, too, is written on her face. “I hope that made a big impression on a lot of young kids that seeing the comet impact on Jupiter made on me, because it made you look at science as a fun and enjoyable place to be,” said Levesque.  

Even with robotic telescopes and remote observation, she said there’s still a place for people and their passion for the night sky. “There’s a love of astronomy and a love of science that you get from being a human stargazer that I think drives a lot of the really awesome tech innovation and automation that we do,” she said.

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Levesque hopes her book reminds readers that scientists are first and foremost people, who actually do come down from their towers and live real lives. “I know that we’re in a funny time when it comes to trust of scientists and trust of experts,” she said. That’s why she wanted to show what actually happens inside the observatories, the good, the bad, and the messy. “I think it helps with recognizing everybody’s humanity,” she said, “and it helps with understanding why we do it, what we do, and where our expertise comes from.”

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