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Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril by Timothy Ferris


Rating: (Recommended)


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If you’ve never read a Timothy Ferris book, Seeing in the Dark is a great place to start. Ferris knows science, and writes like part literary maven, part novelist. On the pages of Seeing in the Dark, Ferris takes readers into the world of amateur astronomers and the contributions they make to science. He brings the characters to life, and explains science in ways that all readers can understand. Here’s one chapter about an amateur astronomer who’s made real contributions to science (pp. 156-9):

Comet Trails: A Visit with David Levy


When I first went to see David Levy, in November 1991, he was known to the inner epicycles of the amateur astronomy community as a skilled comet hunter, but was otherwise obscure. Three years later his name had become a household word. What happened in between was his discovery, with the astronomers Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, andits gaudy demise in a series of irnpacts that Levy described as “the most dramatic ever seen on another world/


Levy’s small home in an outermost suburb of Tucson, Arizona, was a modest affair, inconspicuous and remote as a comet at aphelion, with rude woodenscreens posted here and there to block out local lights and a rooftop observing platform from which he'd discovered a comet the first night after a local handyman finished building it. “ I told him, ‘If I find a comet it will be work the cost, ‘” Levy recalled. “Well, it was worth it.”


His telescopes, clustered together in a cramped shed like barn animals in winter, looked unimposing. A white reactor was mounted on a tiny ten-dollar bench where Levy would sit, like a shy suitor in a park, controlling the scope's motion by manipulating a fishing reel. A 16-inch Dobsonian reflector that Levy named “Miranda” sported a blue cardboard tube and a second-hand three-dollar finder. A sleeker-looking pair of Schmidt cameras completed the array. The sole luxury was an elaborate motorized chair, which enabled Levy to keep his seat while sweeping wide swaths of sky, he traded an antique telescope for it. With this modest equipment, Levy by the year 2001 discovered twenty-one comets, making him the third most prolific comet-sweeper in history Brass plaques mounted on the Dobsonian testified to his comet discoveries, among them "1984t, November 13," "1989r, August 25," and"1990c, May 20," referring to comets listed in the record books as Levy-Rudenko 1984t, Okazaki-Levy-Rudenko 1989r, andLevy 1990c.


Born in Montreal, Levy suffered from severe asthma and was sent, at age fourteen, to the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic Children in Denver, Colorado. He took with him a small telescope he’d been given as a bar mitzvah present and started sneaking out at nights to observe with it. His nocturnal escapades came to the attention of his doctor, who asked, "Why are you waking up at night?"

'I’m not waking up," the young Levy replied. "I’m going outside to observe Neptune with my telescope." The physician thought for a moment, then said, "As your doctor, I am ordering you to keep observing Neptune. You're not to let your asthma stop you from doing what you want to do."


Levy continued observing, and on November 13,1984, after fifteen years of searching, discovered his first comet. He was having dinner that night with a friend, Lonny Baker. She grew impatient when he kept gazing over her shoulder out the window, where the sky was finally clearing after days of clouds. Unable to endure the suspense any longer—dusk and dawn are prime time for comet hunting, since that is when a previously undetected comet may be caught emerging from the Sun's glare—Levy cut the evening short and bolted.


"OK, stand me up," Lonny called after him, "but you'd better find a comet

for me tonight!"


He did. After only an hour and seven minutes of sweeping the sky, he spotted a fuzzy patch in the sky near the star cluster NGC 6709 in Aquila. "The contrast between cluster and fuzz was so beautiful I knew that something was out of place, for such beauty would have appeared in all the astronomical picture books," he recalled. "Within ten minutes I had my answer, for the fuzzy patch had movcd!" He reported the comet thereafter designated comet Levy-Rudenko 1984t)to the Harvard authorities, then called Lonny. "Well, did you find a comet for me tonight?" she asked. She laughed when he answered "Yes," Levy recalled. "When I told her the magnitude she laughed again. It was only after I provided the position and direction and rate of motion that she stopped laughing. 'My God, you’re serious!'"'


By the time I met Levy he had discovered over a dozen comets, some with his back-yard telescopes and others—more recently and at an accelerating rate—on photographs he'd taken with the Shoemakers using the 0.46-meter Schmidt telescope at Palomar. A typical observing run in this project, called the Palomar Asteroid and Comet Survey, consumed seven nights and produced more than three hundred photographs. Levy would pack up his battered old car, drive to Palomar, work all night tor a week, then drive home again. He was reimbursed for his travel expenses bat was paid nothing.


Although he'd never taken an astronomy course or held a job in science, Levy took his observing seriously "While amateurs are not doing astronomy for a living, it’s certainly not just a hobby for most of us," he told one interviewer. “It is part of our nature….If you are a professional astronomer, you are doing astronomy as a daily activity to earn money. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the fact that you're a professional astronomer doesn't stop you from being an amateur, too.”


Levy's bible was Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star~Gazer, a rhapsodic memoir written by the late Leslie Peltier, whom Harlow Shapley of the Harvard College Observatory called "the world's greatest nonpofessional astronomer.” In the course of an amateur career that started in his boyhood Peltier discovered twelve comets and six novae and recorded 132,000 variable star observations. Levy had been carrying around his copy of Starlight Nights for so many years that he'd had to have it rebound, in handsome midnight blue leather, adding blank pages in which he listed every talk he'd given in which he quoted from it. This turned out to be almost all his talks. During my stay inTucson, Levy and I attended an amateur astronpmy meeting for which the scheduled speaker failed to appear, so Levy gave an impromptu lecture. He produced his ever-present copy of Starlight Nights and read a passage in which Peltier, in his mid-twenties and still living on his parents' Ohio farm, describes spotting a comet through his six-inch telescope on Friday, November 13, 1925, riding his old bicycle through the night to a railroad signal tower in town, and dispatching a telegram describing the comet to Harvard. Heading home, Peltier wonders, “What would happen to my message? Would Harvard relay it on so that the big scopes in California could pick it up that night? Or would it arrive at Cambridge only to hear in cultured accents: ‘I say, here's a good one, some chap out in Ohio has just found that comet that was reported about six weeks ago.’”


The discovery was genuine—Peltier’s first—and he carved the new comet's name, “Peltier” along with the year, 1925, into the wooden pier of his telescope. Levy read this passage in rhapsodic tones, and once his talk was over dutifully recorded its place and date in blue ink in his talismanic copy of Starlight Nights.                                                        


“Cornet hunters are like watchmen,” Levy told me, as we opened up his observatory. ~You have to be out there almost every night. You can look for comets any time you want, but if you want to find them, you have to keep looking all the time. I usually look for about an hour at a time, examining each field of view for a second or two. My record is nine hours and forty minutes without stopping."


He turned on an old shortwave radio, a gift from his grandfather. Its tubes glowed amber, warmed up, and after a minute or two it began crooning vintage rock. The sky turned dark and we peered through the big blue Dobsonian at the Andromeda galaxy, the Crab nebula, and Stephan’s Quintet. A couple of meteors streaked through the sky, emissaries of the sparse but persistent Taurid shower. The desert skies were coal black and we could readily see the pale dagger of the zodiacal light. I thought about all that stuff out there, orbiting the Sun—asteroids, comets, dust grains, countless rocks and snowballs. . . .


"There's something about actually looking at these things—something magical about it,” Levy mused. "Amateur astronomy means you do it from the heart—that you have to do it. It connects you, heart and soul, to the sky."


The last thing we observed was Jupiter—which was also the first thing David Levy had viewed through a telescope, at age twelve. Although nobody yet knew it, there was a comet in orbit around Jupiter that night, too dim for us to see but destined for big things. When Levy and the Shoemakers discovered it sixteen months later, the world turned its attention to Jupiter, and our sense of cosmic security—our assumption that all that stuff out there could be pretty much relied upon to stay out there—was shattered forever.


On the well-written pages of Seeing in the Dark, Ferris finds ways to tell readers what’s going on in science, and he helps sort out what makes certain discoveries more important than others. Read this book, and sleep well at night, knowing lots of people around the world have their eyes on the skies.

Steve Hopkins, January 21, 2003


ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: in the Dark.htm


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