Astronomy professor Emily Levesque looks out at massive stars and back at history of her profession

Emily Levesque on board NASA’s SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which is basically a flying telescope plane, consisting of an infrared telescope built inside a specially modified Boeing 747. The plane is designed to fly into the stratosphere and then open its rear door while in flight so the telescope can observe at high altitudes, above most of the planet’s water vapor. (Photo courtesy of Emily Levesque)

When Emily Levesque was 2 years old, Halley’s Comet made its most recent close pass to Earth. Her older brother was observing the phenomenon for a school project and the whole family headed out to the backyard.

Fussy, cold and afraid of the dark, young Levesque’s mood changed when her parents directed her attention to the night sky. From there she was hooked. People would ask what she wanted to be when she grew up and for years she always answered with some version of “I wanna be a ballerina or an astronomer” or “a marine biologist or an astronomer” or “a violinist or an astronomer.”

Astronomer stuck.

The tiny girl wowed by the stars is now an associate astronomy professor at the University of Washington studying the evolution of the most massive stars in the universe. Levesque is also GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

As part of her research she’s observed for upwards of 50 nights on many of the planet’s largest telescopes and she’s flown over the Antarctic stratosphere in an experimental aircraft for her research. Levesque received the 2014 Annie Jump Cannon Award, a 2017 Alfred P. Sloan fellowship, a 2019 Cottrell Scholar award, and the 2020 Newton Lacy Pierce Prize. She earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a PhD in astronomy from the University of Hawaii.

“I study how the biggest stars in the universe evolve and die,” Levesque said. “These stars are the behemoths that explode as supernovae and form black holes, and my research uses their inner physics and weird behavior to explain the dramatic final moments of their lives.”

Levesque calls dying and exploding stars “some of the most brain-bending and mysterious things out there in the universe.”

“I love that humanity now has the scientific and technological capabilities to start untangling these mysteries,” she said.

Levesque has also shed light on the history of her profession as the author of a popular science book titled “The Last Stargazers” and she has a course on Great Courses called “Great Heroes and Discoveries of Astronomy” in which she tells the stories of lesser-known astronomers whose discoveries were as important as those made by the likes of Hubble, Einstein and Sagan. UW News discussed those findings with Levesque last month.

Emily Levesque at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile with the twin Magellan 6.5-meter telescopes in the background. (Photo courtesy of Emily Levesque)

Levesque says a common misconception about professional astronomers is that they spend all of their time peering through telescope eyepieces, but in truth that experience is rare and they rely on advanced digital cameras and scientific instruments to collect data that is analyzed via computer.

But the chance to look through one of the world’s big telescopes is a huge treat, and Levesque was especially wowed by a trip a couple years ago to Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

“You’d think professional astronomers would be very used to the wonders of the universe and very analytical about what we were seeing, but we sounded like a bunch of 6-year-olds: ‘Oooh! Wow! It’s so SPARKLY!'” she said. “I got a chance to look at eta Carinae, a very weird and massive star that’s hurled off huge amounts of material from its outer layers in eruptions so violent they could be mistaken for supernovae. Through the telescope eyepiece I could see the brilliant red light coming from the central star along with the bubble-like lobes of shed gas sitting around the star. I’d seen countless Hubble Space Telescope pictures of this star, but finally seeing it with my own eyes was amazing.”

All that space observation doesn’t make Levesque any more interested in actually leaving Earth. Space-racing billionaires may capture a lot of attention these days, but they can’t satisfy Levesque’s curiosity.

“Elon and Jeff can’t handle the kind of space I want to go to!” she said. “If it were actually possible, I’d want to zip over to Betelgeuse or Cygnus X-1 or the other incredible stars my colleagues and I get to spend time with in our research every day.”

While it’s fun to imagine personally going to space, she’s more excited about the eyes we have on the cosmos right now and telescopes right here on Earth that can take us farther into space than any crewed mission could ever dream of going.

“Any effort to increase public enthusiasm for astronomy and science is great to see, but I think the best thing billionaires could do for space right now would be to keep our planet and its night skies as clear and unspoiled as possible and to invest in these new generations of telescopes that will allow humanity to keep exploring the universe on a truly impressive scale,” Levesque said.

Learn more about our latest Geek of the Week, Emily Levesque:

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Astronomers have surprisingly adventurous jobs! When people picture a professional astronomer they tend to picture a man in a lab coat, peering quietly into a little telescope and patiently watching the sky night after night waiting for something to happen. In reality, astronomers who use telescopes travel quite literally to the ends of the Earth, braving everything from volcanoes to gunfire to bears for hard-won access to some of the most enormous and delicate scientific instruments on the planet. This is such a big misconception that I wrote a book about it, “The Last Stargazers”! I think it’s important for everyone to understand what scientists actually do, what makes us tick, and how discovery actually happens, and in my book I give my readers a behind-the-scenes tour of the especially wacky world of professional astronomy.

Where do you find your inspiration? As a scientist I can’t help but be inspired by the natural world around us; we live on a great and precious little planet and there’s always something amazing happening in the night sky to get excited about. At the same time, I think science is also a surprisingly creative endeavor. It requires great creativity to come up with new and unusual ideas and then develop them so they can stand up to scrutiny! Because of this I’m also very inspired by the many artists and composers and writers who unlocked new ways to think and see and express themselves.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My pocket-sized portable bookstore and library and research station, aka my smartphone! I carry my phone everywhere with me, but my most-used apps aren’t my email or social media; they’re the Kindle app where I do all my reading and a bunch of browser windows holding the results of searches like “can spiders see color?” or “sea lion bark decibels” or what have you. My inner geeky 12-year-old runs my phone, and it’s amazing to have the ability to get lost in any fictional or historical world or to answer any weird science question just sitting in my pocket at all times.

(Photo courtesy of Emily Levesque)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My favorite workspace is a telescope! Here I am (above) standing beneath the Gemini-South telescope atop Cerro Pachon in Chile; its main mirror measures more than 26 feet across! On a good night of observing you get to visiting the telescope like this, smell the machine oil and stale coffee in the dome, watch the sun set, admire the stars for a moment, and then head into the observatory for a long night of gathering data in the computer-filled control room. Sadly, astronomers only get to spend a handful of precious nights at observatories like this, so my day-to-day workspace is usually just my desk, my laptop, and a research notebook, but I’ll usually be working with data taken from a workspace like this one!

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I’m a huge fan of week planning: I sit down every Sunday and plot out each day of the upcoming week in great detail, from what meetings are on what days and which projects need work to what I plan to eat and wear. To be clear, I think I can count the number of times I’ve actually perfectly FOLLOWED these plans on one hand, but having the plan is almost more valuable than sticking to it. It means that I know when I have time to shuffle or change things up if need be, it prevents things from falling through the tracks, and it saves me a lot of time and decisions and planning when things get busy because I’ve already sorted out so many little life logistics ahead of time.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Favorite superhero or sci-fi character? Ahsoka Tano!

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter!

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … start an independent production company that makes movies and TV shows about incredible real-life science stories (this might need more than $1 million though).

I once waited in line for … shaking Buzz Aldrin’s hand. I was five. When I got to the front of the line I wound up shouting my name, age, and phone number at him. Way to play it cool, 5-year-old Emily.

Your role models: While researching my book I learned a lot about women like Vera Rubin and Margaret Burbidge, both astronomers who made HUGE discoveries. Rubin discovered dark matter, which now drives an entire subfield of physics! Burbidge led the scientific paper that literally concluded we are all made of star stuff a la Carl Sagan and Joni Mitchell. Both of them also did this work while dealing with all sorts of setbacks and blockages that were never thrown in front of their male colleagues: to take just one example, they had to fight policies that prevented women from being the lead scientists at telescopes or from even staying in observatory housing while they worked. It’s amazing that they managed to overcome these challenges AND advocate for other women in the field AND still make some of the most ground-breaking scientific discoveries of the century. Astronomers of all genders today can build on both the research that Vera and Margaret did AND their efforts to make astronomy more inclusive; it’s something I try to prioritize in my own career and something I really value in my colleagues.

Greatest game in history: “Myst.” I was a ’90s kid and still remember how much the graphics and music blew my mind.

Best gadget ever: Seek thermal compact — it’s a tiny IR camera that plugs into your phone!

First computer: Apple IIe.

Current phone: iPhone 11 Pro.

Favorite app: Kindle!

Favorite cause: Science communication: loving and understanding science is something everyone should be able to enjoy!

Most important technology of 2021: Besides mRNA vaccines? I’m enjoying the new touch-free options that are sticking around as we emerge from the pandemic: scannable menus and museum guides are using pre-2021 tech, but it’s a neat green alternative to how we used to do things.

Most important technology of 2023: I’d love to see highly efficient (as in 90%) solar panels. The sun’s going to be shining for a LONG time — trust me on this one — and it’d be great to start harnessing it in large enough quantities to make it our new primary energy source.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Use your geekery to make the most of the world around you! I think it’s too easy to turn up our noses at people who, say, have their heads buried in their phones during a beautiful sunset; maybe they’re curious about why sunsets are orange, or why sunsets are so late at our high PNW latitudes, or what a green flash is (look it up!), or maybe they’re sending a picture halfway around the world to a friend who’s watching the same sun rise. I think the technology we all currently have at our fingertips can be very powerfully used to shrink or expand our worlds, and I’d encourage everyone to choose expansion whenever you can!

Website: emlevesque.com

Twitter: @emsque

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Geek of the week Astronomy Emily levesque University of washington