November 17, 2007

Comet-Hunter Levy Has Degrees – in English Lit


'Amateur' astronomer, citizen scientist

Famed Tucson astronomer and comet hunter David Levy's future was in the stars. Dimly.

Barely visible.

Levy says he was 8 years old and walking back to his cabin at summer camp.

"I happened to be looking up at the dark sky and I saw a little shooting star. It wasn't much of anything, but it lit a spark in me," Levy says. "I asked my cabin mates if they saw it, and they didn't, and I thought, 'This is just for me.' "

Then, nothing - until four years later when he fell off his bike and broke an arm. He was laid up for his 12th summer. His father and uncle brought him a telescope to amuse him while the arm healed.

"By the end of that summer, I was very much into observing and wanting to go out every night. I remember seeing Jupiter and its four (visible) moons and then the next night, Saturn. I remember being engrossed by it," Levy says.

It took over his life, and, as smitten kids will, he tried to share the joy with any and all.

"I remember (Dad) saying, 'We talked about astronomy all last week. Let's talk about something else and we can go back to astronomy later.' "

Not likely. From all reports, he hasn't stopped talking about astronomy since.

Levy is now one of the country's best known astronomers, maybe the best-known since Carl Sagan died, and one of the world's leading comet finders - he's discovered 22, so far.

The best known among them was Shoemaker-Levy 9, the soon-to-be spectacular comet he discovered with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker in 1993. It broke into chunks, slamming into Jupiter one after another over a week in July 1994.

Levy is the science editor for Parade Magazine, a title Sagan held.

He's written dozens of astronomy books, authored countless magazine articles.

He's been on the "Today" show four times.

He's traveled all over the world lecturing about astronomy.

"Enthusiastic" is a word often found close to his name.

But "Ph.D." and "Doctor" are not.

He doesn't have a degree in astronomy.

"I haven't even taken a course in astronomy," Levy says somewhat proudly, as if someone might figure the lack of a degree was somehow a technicality.

While in high school, he assumed he would go to college and turn pro.

"That's what I was going to do," Levy says. "Get degrees (in astronomy) and become a happy, successful astronomer."

Listen up, kids.

"It never really happened because I could never make it in the advanced math," Levy says.

He got degrees, but they were in English literature. He's now working on a Ph.D. in English lit - "astronomy's place in the early modern literary period, Shakespeare and that period."

He's an amateur, a citizen scientist.

Levy's in good company.

He's like Percival Lowell, the wealthy Bostonian who sparked Arizona's astronomical future by moving here and building an observatory in Flagstaff.

And like Clyde Tombaugh, the self-taught Kansas farm boy who talked his way into Lowell Observatory and discovered Pluto.

True, Levy is hardly an amateur anymore, in that he has made a modest living through his fame in astronomy.

But his wife, Wendee Levy, says he's an amateur at heart.

"Amateur astronomers are the most enthusiastic people you're going to meet," she says.

Most say they'd love to retire from their day jobs so they can do star parties for the rest of their lives, she says.

But David, she says, is essentially doing just that. "He eats, breathes and sleeps astronomy. He's never lost that enthusiasm."

Well, there was a very brief moment, David Levy recalls.

"After I found my comet last fall I asked Wendee if this is a good time to stop. Because the time to stop would be right after a discovery. She said, 'Are you enjoying it?' I said, 'Yeah.' "

Wendee's recollection is that she said, "Men don't go fishing to catch fish, they go fishing for the relaxation. If they catch fish, all the better. It relaxes you. That's good enough."

It was good enough for him. He's continued searching almost every night.

Well, there was this other time, says his friend and fellow astronomer Mark Sykes, director of the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute.

"I remember back years ago" - late 1970s or early 1980s - "when David was telling me he'd been searching for comets for years and he was afraid he would never find any. And within a year he discovered his first comet and he's been on a major roll ever since," said Sykes.

Even a small stroke Levy suffered in January didn't stop the nightly sky search for long.

Levy says he was lucky it was a small stroke. It briefly affected his vision and kept him out of the backyard observatory for a couple of months, and he still tires easily.

He continues to spread the word, lecturing and writing astronomy books, and even spreading some telescopes.

He and Wendee started the National Sharing the Sky Foundation a few years ago to give more people, especially children, the chance to get hooked on the night sky.

The organization, mainly the Levys and some astronomy enthusiasts who make contributions, works with a telescope manufacturer to put 14-inch telescopes in schools that can't afford them.

"It's more possible than ever for amateurs to make real contributions to astronomy," says Levy.

And while he says it's always been possible for amateurs to get involved, reasonably powerful telescopes are cheaper than they've ever been.

Digital photography has helped, too, making it cheaper and easier to capture and later analyze and compare images to discover new comets and other objects.

Levy says automated star finders - now available on telescopes costing as little as $200 - along with cheap, powerful astronomy programs and digital photography are a boon to amateurs.

But he's a romantic about looking at the sky.

"There's still an argument for just looking through a telescope," he says.

"Many people will tell you that it's (better) looking through a CCD (digital camera), but then, astronomy comes down to looking through a computer, like anything else."

He still does it almost every night using one of several telescopes in his and Wendee's Jarnac Observatory behind their home in Vail on the Tucson area's Southeast Side.

And, in the end, Levy says that's what he'd like to get others to do - just go out back and look at the sky, with any kind of telescope, even binoculars or their bare eyes.


Tucsonan David Levy is credited with discovering 22 comets, including nine at his backyard observatory.

Levy, who was born in Canada, moved to Tucson in 1979.

His most famous find: Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (discovered with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker in 1993), which slammed into Jupiter in 1994.

His first comet: 1984.

His most recent: 2006.

To know more ...

For more on David Levy, David and Wendee Levy's Jarnac Observatory and the Sharing the Sky Foundation:



* Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at 573-4185 or [email protected]