The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story Of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, by Emily Levesque
This book could have been much better than it was, as is often the case. There are really a couple of issues with this book that prevent it from being as enjoyable as it could have been. One of them is that the author is obsessed with identity politics, and so instead of getting a book that focuses on how astronomers work in the present world, we get endless fussing and feuding about politics, including whining about diversity and simultaneously bemoaning and practicing politics in the hypocritical fashion of the contemporary left. The second problem is strangely related to the first, and that is that the author conveys astronomy as a dying and vanishing field. It is quite possible that this unreasonable pessimism is related to the intense politicking that the author simultaneously bemoans and practices in that there is a perceived high degree of conflict to attain positions of secure government funding for research and this is viewed as a zero sum game. The author is unfortunately not insightful enough to realize that increased identity politics threatens the public funding from those whose love of basic science research does not outweigh their hatred of leftist politics because it attacks the consensus of funding basic research that is not supposed to further unhelpful political agendas.
This book is a bit shy of 300 pages in length and is divided into thirteen chapters. After starting with an introduction, the first couple of chapters of the book contain the author’s own story of her childhood as well as her own studies in first physics and then astronomy. After that the author talks about the practical business of astronomical research and its lack of comfort for scientists, as well as the hazards which can afflict the astronomer as well as the loss of valuable time spent because of things like volcanoes. There is a chapter where the author collects stories about research from others, including the true story of how a Texas telescope was shot, causing surprisingly little damage. There is a chapter devoted to the political conflicts involving women in astronomy and fights over the location of telescopes, and then a chapter that discusses different varieties of astronomy with their own language. Later on the author discusses the complexity of research as well as targets of opportunity, the ways in which astronomers seek to detect gravity waves from space and also a look at the future of the field.
Yet while there are certainly problems with this book, there is also some enjoyment that can be found in it. When the author is not discussing her disreputable interests in corrupting public funding for identity politics, there are actually some good discussions here. The author includes plenty of personal stories about her own research and her experience seeking insights about stars and how she learned how to be an astronomer and how this knowledge is not exactly widely disseminated around the general public, even of educated people. There are humorous cartoons and a discussion of the lack of safety and personal comfort for those who have to spend time in the large domes that exist. Even among the political aspects of this book there are some discussions of the ways that research can be harmed by the intense competition that occurs between astronomers, especially when people seek to steal the time of others in order to look for a supernova or engage in some other sort of “hot” research. Similarly, the author expresses her love of travel as well as her thinking about the sort of places that astronomical research takes place in, and how these places are almost uniformly sacred to some sort of heathen religion, something the author does not ponder to reflect on when it comes to her own learning and research.