Book Review: The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers


Who knew that the life of an astronomer was so much fun? 

In her 2020 book Emily Levesque relates amusing and amazing stories of professional stargazers. It's not a book about deep concepts of astrophysics, it's a book about how astronomy is actually done and a peek into the lives of astronomers. 

The focus of the book is on "observing". For us non-astronomers, "observing" is what an astronomer does when they get in front of a telescope. Observing is the actual search through the night sky to locate objects of study. 

Astronomers then take the results of their observing, whether recorded to photographic plates as in the past, or to digital data stores today, and do analysis to understand celestial phenomena like black holes and supernovas and pulsars and such. 

The book contains a mix of stories. Some of it is memoir as Levesque relates her love of the night sky and her own journey to a career in astronomy. Some of it is the story of the development of the tools of modern astronomy - the ways and means to observe the night sky, along with stories of some of the personalities that have used those tools to make astronomy happen. Some of it is relating interesting and humorous stories of observing that she's gathered from the over 100 other astronomers she interviewed for this book. All of it is well told.

Most of the observing in astronomy is at telescopes located in very remote mountainous regions of the world. One of my favorite stories in the book is about the viscachas seen at many observatories in Chile. 

Viscachas are small furry relatives of chinchillas who Levesque describes as "wise rabbit grandfathers" with "tall ears, long curled tails, sleepy eyes, and long, drooping whiskers". The thing about these animals is that, like the astronomers who come to their mountaintops to observe, they like to watch sunsets. Picture the astronomer and the wise rabbit grandfather perched on the mountain summit as the sun fades into the distance outside the observatory. Both watching the sky, taking in the show and "watching our planet turn".

It's stories like this throughout the book that humanize astronomers as they go about observing. 

Part of the reason why Levesque wrote this book is that her field is changing. As telescopes become more and more automated, allowing astronomers more time to focus on the analysis and understanding of our universe, a perverse thing is happening. People who've devoted their lives to the study of the night sky find themselves actually observing it less and less. Their world is evolving from one where data was scarce and observing was a time consuming necessity, to one where observing is automated, does not require their presence, and provides masses of data by email for analysis. The time to be an "explorer" in the old sense is fading away.

I'm very glad I read this book, and would highly recommend it for anyone scientifically minded or interested in astronomy. Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ for The Last Stargazers.

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Title: The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers
Author: Emily Levesque
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publish Date: August 4, 2020
ISBN-13:  9781492681076
List Price: $25.99 (Hardcover as of 12/2021)