UW News

April 11, 2019

Stars and stories: UW astronomer Emily Levesque gathering material for book on ‘true tales of observational astronomy’

UW News

Emily Levesque, University of Washington assistant professor of astronomy, is gathering stories for a book to be titled "The Last Stargazers: True Tales of the Colorful and Vanishing World of Observational Astronomy," which will be published in 2020.

Emily Levesque, University of Washington assistant professor of astronomy, is gathering stories for a book to be titled “The Last Stargazers: True Tales of the Colorful and Vanishing World of Observational Astronomy,” which will be published in 2020.Dennis Wise

A bear in a hallway, a tarantula on a wall, a man attacking a telescope with a gun, lightning strikes, mountain living — so many stories. And then there was the one about a star’s mysterious potassium flares …

Emily Levesque, University of Washington assistant professor of astronomy, and an increasingly well-known name in her field, is working on material for a new book for science-loving general readers, to be called “The Last Stargazers: True Tales of the Colorful and Vanishing World of Observational Astronomy.”

Follow Levesque as she prepares her book:
Website for The Last Stargazers, with email updates
Twitter: @emsque; #TheLastStargazers

“These are stories astronomers tell each other when all of us are hanging out at meetings,” Levesque said. “Like: ‘Did I ever tell you about this wacky thing that happened to me at a telescope?’ Tall tales of the field.”

Levesque (pronounced Le-Vek) studies, as she says on Twitter, “how the strangest and largest stars in the universe evolve and die.” She is an experienced author of astronomy textbooks, but this is her first popular science book.

“I just realized that I want to write this book now, I don’t want this to be a thing that I put off forever,” she said. And when she sat down with her eventual literary agent, “the ideas just started appearing in my head and coming out of my mouth at the same time — it was unreal.”

The book will try to show the human side of astronomy, but is intended to be more than just a collection of anecdotes.

Albright, Mirren, Ginsburg — Levesque: An honor from Dublin’s Trinity College

Emily Levesque was chosen as a recipient of a Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage, given by the students in the Trinity College University Philosophical Society, also called “The Phil.” Founded in 1683, it is the oldest student society in the world.

The society bestows awards each year to individuals doing excellent work in multiple fields, from music, film and theater to science and politics. Levesque accepted the honor and gave an address at the college on Feb. 1. Her topic was the intersection of science and creativity.

“They don’t necessarily have science backgrounds,” she said, “so it turned into: Why does creativity play such a key role in science? They asked a lot of questions. It was fun — a really enthusiastic group of students.”

Levesque is in powerful company with the honor — previous gold medals have gone to actors Dame Helen Mirren and Whoopi Goldberg and Amy Poehler, composer Howard Shore, supermodel Kate Moss, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former vice president Joe Biden, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among scores of others.

“I think the recipient coming right after me was Mary Berry of ‘Great British Baking Show’ fame,” Levesque said. “And when they told me that I completely lost my cool for about half a second and then went, ‘Oh, really?'”

She added, “It was an incredible compliment to be given the award — very humbling company to be in.”

“You can’t extract the science from it — like, there’s a reason we are doing this in the dark, or on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. The science is there, driving what we are doing as people. You can use stories like that to paint a picture of what it’s like to work in a telescope and what it’s like to be an astronomer — and how that is changing.”

Since starting the research in 2017 — in addition to her busy day job — Levesque has interviewed more than 100 fellow astronomers, with more to come, seeking them out in person at conferences or over email or social media. Responses have been overwhelmingly positive.

Their stories come in all types: Lightning striking buildings and at least one astronomer (“fortunately, he’s OK”) as well as earthquakes, volcanoes, and wilderness encounters while chasing astronomical phenomena across the globe. And many of what Levesque calls “critter stories” — the bear in the hallway of an observatory, or a tarantula clinging to a wall. (She and a colleague famously met up with some jumping spiders a couple years back.)

Some of these tales are well known and often repeated, like the disgruntled observatory employee in Texas who grabbed a gun late at night and fired multiple shots into the vast mirror of one of the telescopes, then went after it with a hammer — to little real effect, she said.

“Everybody knows a different version of that story — who was there or when the shots were fired and how the telescope was positioned. I kind of like that in its own way.”

Levesque joined the UW in 2015 from the University of Colorado, where she had held postdoctoral fellowships. She earned her master’s and doctorate from the University of Hawaii and her bachelor’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She grew up in southern Massachusetts, knowing she liked science but lacking any real information on what that meant.

“I had never met a scientist — had no idea what scientists really did,” she said. “I knew I liked science but I wasn’t sure if I would ever make friends while doing it, because I got made fun of in school for being a ‘science nerd.'”

Family members were supportive, “but there wasn’t, like, an astronomer living down the street. So when I read stories about scientists who were doing this amazing research, and having adventures and having fun — that was just like, ah, perfect! Now I want to do this!”

Still, it was eye-opening to learn what doing astronomy is really like, she said with a laugh: “Wait, we have to go where? In the middle of the desert in Chile to observe? You have to do what to make the telescope work? And the tarantulas are how big?

“So, I come from the same perspective that I think a lot of my readers will be coming from. And I don’t think people necessarily realize that an astronomer’s job is less white lab coat, more Indiana Jones!”

Many of those readers, she hopes, will be women. Leveque said her book will include a chapter dedicated to women and people of color in astronomy, especially in light of the #MeToo reckoning from which astronomy is far from exempt.

“It’s imperfect, like any field is, but there are a lot of people who are prioritizing inclusivity in science,” she said. Levesque has certainly heard stories of sexism and harassment, “but just as many times I’ve talked to women who say, ‘It’s wonderful, because when you are on the mountain, suddenly everybody is a scientist. And it’s a pleasant, egalitarian situation.’ Though of course that’s not true in every case.”

Another chapter will be about controversies surrounding the telescopes and observatories themselves, which can involve land rights, environmental, and cultural issues.

Despite the dramatic book title, Levesque said, observational astronomy actually remains an exciting and lively field — it’s just evolving. And as the field continues to embrace big data and innovative computer technologies, she said, the stories of “wacky hijinks by a few people at a telescope out in the middle of nowhere” will begin to fade. “But some incredible science has come — and still comes! — out of those hijinks, so I wanted to preserve those stories in a book.”

Her own favorite stories, she said, are ones that tie in the science and show how the human side of observing “can help make the science better, in a way.”

Like the one about the mysterious potassium flares.

In the 1960s a research team of French astronomers spotted unexplained flares of light while looking at stars and found the phenomena unexpectedly contained the element potassium. They wrote up their results, which caused great excitement — but no one else was able to see those flares, even when observing the same stars.

Researchers in California later studied and solved the mystery: One of those French researchers was a well-known pipe smoker, and the bright potassium flares thought to come from deep space actually resulted from him lighting his pipe with a match in a back room that also contained the team’s light detector.

Levesque is entertained by the follow-up work: “Their paper on it is just exquisite science, because they’re so rigorous about getting to the bottom of this wacky explanation. They actually write out: ‘We tested safety matches, we tested book matches, we tested kitchen matches…’ And to their credit — and I think this is true of scientists — the folks in France were like, ‘Oh, you explained it? How can we help?’”

“The Last Stargazers” — a book Levesque herself would have enjoyed and benefited from when she was younger — is expected to be published in mid-2020 by Sourcebooks.

The stories will be there, and the science. And a sense of how, as Levesque said, “The things that make us good humans are the things that make us good scientists.”

Because, as she told her followers on Twitter during her latest field trip to gather yet more stories, “Stargazing never gets old.”


For more information, contact Levesque at emsque@uw.edu