In this wonderful book, astronomer Emily Levesque ably tells the story of the modern-day star-gazers who appear like the characters in a sweeping tale of narrative science. This may be a nonfiction book but it tells it’s decades long story in a most engaging and personal way. In my last WRW blog I reviewed a geology book and described my own geeky passion for the subject matter. This volume is just the same, for astronomy has been another love of mine since childhood. Living through the era of Sir Patrick Moore, Prof. Carl Sagan and the NASA moon landings was more than enough to have me looking skyward from an early age. I was alway fascinated by the long history of astronomy from the earliest star gazers of pre-history through centuries of observing by men and women of science who strove to explain our place in the endless universe.
The Last Stargazers focusses on the development of astronomy during the authors own lifetime. I have long admired astronomers for the work that they do and the discoveries they have made. This book was like a paradigm shift where the astronomers are lovingly shown as a special breed of people who have endured much hardship in order to make those discoveries. It is obvious these days that the best telescopes need to be located in the highest and remotest of places but how many of us have ever stopped to think about what that meant for the astronomers and technicians who had to go there? This is where the narrative delivers wonderful anecdotes about real people in remote locations having to cope with variable weather and intrusive wildlife. How many of us have ever walked out of an office and met a large wild bear coming down the corridor towards us? How would you feel about sharing the telescope with large and dangerous tarantulas who used it to shelter in, or, having the telescope shot by a marauding colleague waving a handgun?
Levesques delivers her tale in a way which superbly blends the work and the discoveries made with the romance and enthusiasm of the people doing it. It is a book of emotions too. I have hinted at some of the dangers but how about the fear of sometimes being solely responsible for a multi million pound piece of kit? The reverse of this were beautiful moments such as sharing glorious sunsets with fluffy local viscacha on a Chilean summit. It seems that these little creatures would stand and gaze at the spectacle alongside their visiting humans. The part of that story which struck me the most was not the behaviour of the animals but that this was one of many examples of astronomers who often seemed to take their coffee breaks standing outside their observatories looking up at the night sky. Clearly for them, the awe and wonder of the firmament was not lost while fixating on a specific red dwarf star or black hole.
As the title suggests, Levesque is describing a very drastic change in the way that astronomy is done. The romantic days of remotely situated, large optical telescopes staffed by scientists, gradually gave way to technicians monitoring the screens displaying data from large radio dishes. As computer monitoring and control developed, things changed again so that astronomers did not need to leave their offices. We are shown a glimpse of the future and the possibility of using off world telescopes. Hubble paved the way and there have been others. Today, as I write this, we finally have a launch date for the long delayed but much heralded James Webb space telescope (18th Dec 2021).
Beneath the romance there have been many difficulties to overcome. Not least of these was the long fight for equality which Levesque and her female peers had to endure, but at least in that they have made huge advances. There is also the fundamental question of why we should invest millions in gazing at the stars when our own planet is in trouble? I know that it is an over used phrase, but for me it is all about human endeavour just as are so many other forms of ‘blue-sky thinking’. Levesque does not claim a definitive answer but the one she gives is good enough, “we don’t know exactly why, but we must.”
You’ve probably guessed by now that I have loved every page of this book. I was left feeling warm from it’s telling but also slightly sad and had to give myself a little time to dwell on the reason for this. I have read other books recently ( e.g. Christopher Wanjek’s SPACEFARERS) and have been left feeling really frustrated that we as an intelligent race are not much further ahead in space exploration. It has been over fifty years since men first walked on the moon so why has progress beyond that been so slow? I have come to the conclusion that whilst we may blame politics or finances, the root cause goes deeper. Since ancient times, humanity looked up at the stars and they wondered, they marvelled and they asked questions. People across the Earth learned the patterns and changes in the night sky because that knowledge was essential to tribal migration, to food production and was the means by which explorers navigated our world. As soon as the majority of people had moved to urban living there was less need to look up and once we introduced electric lighting there was less to see in the night sky anyway. We have lost the sense of wonder and the need to explore. We are so busy asking questions about today that we have stopped asking the important questions about tomorrow, about all our tomorrows. We need to go out into the countryside and look up. We need to start dreaming again.