The Magic Lyrids Plenty of telescopes grace my observatory, but I still enjoy watching shooting stars, or meteors, more than anything else. This year, after a break of several months, the Earth passed through the Lyrid meteor stream on the night of April 21. The meteor shower takes place when the Earth encounters dust from Comet Thatcher, a comet that last appeared in 1861. I captured five meteors with my camera, of which one accompanies this article. As I relaxed outdoors during this time, the memories began to flood back. My first experience with the Lyrids was on April 22, 1963. I was at the time a patient at the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic Children in Denver. I wrote it up this way in my diary: “I had a regular day today, until tonight. I went out and saw a fireball (a very bright meteor.) Then a big, fat, hunk of cloud came over. I saw no more meteors.” The next night … Continue reading →
About David Levy
David H. Levy is one of the most successful comet discoverers in history. He has discovered 22 comets, nine of them using his own backyard telescopes. With Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker at the Palomar Observatory in California he discovered Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that collided with Jupiter in 1994. That episode produced the most spectacular explosions ever witnessed in the solar system. Levy is currently involved with the Jarnac Comet Survey, which is based at the Jarnac Observatory in Vail, Arizona but which has telescopes planned for locations around the world.
Levy is the author or editor of 35 books and other products. He won an Emmy in 1998 as part of the writing team for the Discovery Channel documentary, "Three Minutes to Impact." As the Science Editor for Parade Magazine from 1997 to 2006, he was able to reach more than 80 million readers, almost a quarter of the population of the United States. A contributing editor for Sky and Telescope Magazine, he writes its monthly "Star Trails" column, and his "Nightfall" feature appears in each issue of the Canadian Magazine Skynews.
David Levy has given more than 1000 lectures and major interviews, and has appeared on many television programs, such as the Today show (4 times), Good Morning America (twice), the National Geographic special "Asteroids: Deadly Impact", and ABC's World News Tonight, where he and the Shoemakers were named Persons of the Week for July 22, 1994. Also, Levy has done nationally broadcast testimonials for PBS (1995-present), and for the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon (1998-1999). He and his wife Wendee host a weekly radio show available worldwide at www.letstalkstars.com. In 2004 he was the Senator John Rhodes Chair in Public Policy and American Institutions at Arizona State University. He has been awarded five honorary doctorates, and asteroid 3673 (Levy) was named in his honor. In 2010, David became the first person to discover comets visually, photographically, and electronically.
On June 6, 2010, David was awarded a Ph. D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his dissertation for the Department of English on the topic of "The Sky in Early Modern English Literature: A Study of Allusions to Celestial Events in Elizabethan and Jacobean Writing, 1572-1610."
Levy is President of the National Sharing the Sky Foundation, an organization intended to inspire new generations to develop an inquiring interest in the sciences, or in other words, to reach for the stars.
Levy resides in Vail, Arizona, with his wife, Wendee. After teaching Physical Education in the Las Cruces school district for 26 years, in 1996 Wendee became the manager of Jarnac Observatory, and was promoted to Director in 2004. Wendee is an integral part of our Jarnac Comet Survey, helping to organize the program and scan the images. As Secretary-Treasurer of the National Sharing the Sky Foundation, Wendee plays a vital role in its activities. - From David's website.
The Great Comet of 1844, and the Great Comet of 2020? Just a week before Christmas 1844 (December 19, 1844) a sea captain named Wilmot discovered a bright comet without using a telescope. The comet was easily bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, and remained so throughout January, and then, with a telescope, it could be followed through the end of March. The comet was as bright as Halley’s comet was, earlier, at its appearance in 1835. At the time there was some speculation as to whether this comet might have been on a similar orbit to that of the Great Comet of 1556, but George Bond, after having investigated that possibility, ruled it out by concluding the orbits were not similar enough. What cannot be ruled out is that the comet of 1844 might have been a large fragment of a much larger, and earlier, comet. On December 28, 2019, last year, the ATLAS project discovered … Continue reading →
When Poetry Reaches the Stars Long, long ago, when I was as student at Acadia University in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, we studied the poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The English 360 course was taught by one of my favorite professors, Roger Lewis. Tennyson remains one of the truly great English poets, and even in his lifetime he knew that. In 1850, upon the death of William Wordsworth, he was appointed poet laureate by Queen Victoria. In that same year he published In Memoriam A.H.H., arguably his greatest work. More than a poet, Tennyson enriched his life with a passionate interest in science, particularly the night sky. Did he own a telescope? He surely did. Although he used it often, particularly from his home on the Isle of Wight, he often enjoyed the use of big refractor telescopes in England. He viewed some of the great comets of his time, like Donati in 1858 and Tebutt in 1861. … Continue reading →
Young Stephen was sitting at his desk in school, feeling bored. As he sat, he thought of the beagle, named Clipper, that his parents bought him. It was time for Clipper to take young Stephen on a tour through the night sky. On command Clipper appeared and said, “Tonight I will have you meet the Moon, and a new star.” “A brand new star I have never seen before?” “We are going to visit a couple of places in the sky—first the Moon, and then the Dog Star.” “Why”? Stephen demanded. “Because I said so,” Clipper howled. After all, Clipper is a beagle. And beagles are dogs too. Suddenly a cloud of whirling gases appeared out of nowhere. As Stephen hugged Clipper tightly, both boy and beagle slipped into the wormhole and somehow navigated through space and time. When they emerged, they were walking on the Moon. All was white, and mountains and crater walls towered into the sky. Despite … Continue reading →
California and the Universe Since early in the last century, astronomers dreamed of the clear sky over California as a place to unlock our imaginations and study the Universe. In 1917, the 100-inch Hooker telescope was opened to the poetry of Alfred Noyes, who wrote: We creep to power by inches. …Even to-night Our own old sixty has its work to do; And now our hundred-inch: I hardly dare To think what this new muzzle of ours may find. And just think what the new telescope did find; among many other things, it revealed that our Universe was double the size we thought it was. Despite the fact that I have visited Mount Wilson many times, my most recent visit in September gave me an insight I hadn’t experienced before. I was a guest of Scott Roberts, whose Explore Scientific telescope company had organized an observing party there. The place literally oozes history through every stone, piece of wood, and … Continue reading →
The AAR lives on! About a year ago in this column I wrote about the final Adirondack Astronomy Retreat (AAR) that Wendee and I held in the Adirondack Mountains near Lewis, New York. We had a special program with lectures, a banquet featuring, among other VIPs, my brother Gerry and his partner Duane, and President John Ettling of SUNY Plattsburgh. We even presented to Dr. Ettling the first Starlight Night Prize to celebrate the University’s commitment to keep this wonderful place as dark as possible. We concluded the week by burying a time capsule. Much as we tried, the enthusiasm for the event was too strong just to end it. Now, under the direction of Patrice Scattolin from Montreal and his family, AAR is continuing. With his high intelligence and brilliant sense of humor, Patrice ran the event with an efficiency and alacrity rarely seen. Laurie Williams, with the assistance of daughters Clara and Sophie and son Marc, kept the … Continue reading →
A Dog Star There are so many good reasons for acquiring an interest in the night sky – mine wasn’t one of them. It turns out that I was extraordinarily shy as a child and had few friends. One July evening, at Twin lake Camp in Vermont while walking with my bunk-mates from a July 4th celebration, I happened to be looking up at the night sky when I saw a shooting star. It was not particularly bright but it did capture my attention as it raced from the head of Draco, the Dragon, towards the bright star Vega. Right away, I noticed that the stars could be friends. Stars are people too. Around the same time our family got a beagle dog we named Clipper. I spent much time with him as I was growing up, taking him for walks and generally sharing my adventures with him. He was even the subject of my first book, written when I … Continue reading →
A Nightwatchman’s Journey: The Road Not Taken On Friday, June 14, my latest book, my autobiography titled A Nightwatchman’s Journey: The Road not Taken was launched at the Royal Astronomical Society’s General Assembly in Toronto. It is a book I have been working on for almost a decade, and it is the story of my life. The book begins in medias res, in the midst of a suicide attempt that happened shortly after I graduated from Acadia. I have suffered from depression throughout my life, but this book describes my efforts to conquer it. It tells of how I made many poor decisions in my life, but how two of them were good. The best decision was marrying Wendee, which I did in 1997 and with whom I have had 22 happy years. The other one was to begin, on December 17, 1965, a search for comets. It took me nineteen years, searching with telescopes for 917 hours 28 minutes, before … Continue reading →
Jeopardy James Of all the programs that Wendee and I enjoy on our television set, the game show Jeopardy! is one of our favorites. For a half hour each day, Wendee and I play along as the three contestants try to respond correctly to host Alex Trebek’s clues. In our tradition, if Wendee or I get a question answered, we applaud each other. It’s fun. We were saddened to learn of Trebek’s cancer diagnosis and we hope he will continue to enjoy a long life. Last month the show has been unforgettable. In his first 31 days as a contestant, James Holzhauer has earned an astonishing $2,462,216 in winnings. On the show that aired Friday, May 31, Holzhauer won $79,633. Wendee and I particularly enjoy the astronomy clues that come up on shows like Jeopardy! Here is a clue from last Friday: “On November 12, 1833, these meteor showers were seen across all of North America, sparking the serious study … Continue reading →
Trinity As the world prepared for war in 1939, a group of physicists was studying how to reproduce the behavior of a star on Earth: to split an atom, either quietly to provide a virtually unlimited source of power, or explosively to create a weapon of mass destruction. Worried that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb first, astrophysicist Leo Szilard wrote a letter to President Roosevelt suggesting that the Americans should develop the bomb first. Thinking that the letter would have more impact if it were signed by the foremost scientist of that time, Szilard made two visits to Albert Einstein’s summer home in Cutchogue, on Long Island, New York. They persuaded him to sign the letter. Einstein’s letter had an immediate and powerful impact on Roosevelt. He immediately set in place the initial research that led to the start of the Manhattan project in June of 1942. Within three years, the first plutonium nuclear device was test detonated … Continue reading →
Sparking an Interest in Astronomy in Young Students During our monthly star nights at our neighborhood Corona Foothills Middle School, I sit down on a chair near the telescope to assist with the observing. The students attending are well behaved no matter their level of interest. Some of the kids are there just for the evening’s assignment. But occasionally one student or two will sit down next to me and ask me a few questions. They don’t have to do this. They may ask how I got started in astronomy, in a time without computers, or even what my favorite planet or comet is. I love these conversations; they signify to me that the girl or boy is developing an interest in the sky, and an inquiring mind is at work – that is so rare and precious these days. That interest and curiosity may go nowhere; it may persist for a few months, or it may go everywhere. Why are relatively few young people … Continue reading →
For the Love of Comets If you have read this column more than once, you probably are not too surprised to understand that I love comets. Comets are a part of me, a part of who I am. But I had to wait a while before I saw my first comet. I was already 17 years old and had been interested in the sky for a number of years. When I learned that the two young Japanese amateur astronomers Kaoru Ikeya and Tsutomu Seki had discovered a comet that could become the comet of the century, I was spellbound. During the mild autumn of 1965, as I awaited this mighty comet, I decided to begin a comet search program of my own. At the end of October I finally saw this comet as it rose, tail first, in the sky to the east beyond the St. Lawrence River. I observed it again a week later in early November. I have … Continue reading →