Hanging out with comet hunter David Levy

One of the great perks of membership in the Seattle Astronomical Society is that the speakers at its annual banquet are typically dynamite. This year’s event featured one of the giants of astronomy, David H. Levy, who has discovered 22 comets, including the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 that slammed into Jupiter in 1994.

Levy’s talk was highly autobiographical, which is fitting because his own autobiography, A Nightwatchman’s Journey: The Road Not Taken, is scheduled to come out this summer. Levy’s story is not necessarily complete, however; he’s still at it.

“Astronomers never really retire; you certainly don’t retire from being an amateur astronomer because it’s in your blood, it’s what you do, it’s what you live for,” Levy noted.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to discover another comet,” he said. “I’m still searching, because the search is so much fun!”

Several events from his youth seemed to steer Levy to a life in astronomy. Leslie Peltier discovered the Comet Kesak-Peltier in June of 1954 when Levy was about six years old. Later, when he was in high school, Levy was assigned to do a report on a book of his choosing. He picked Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer, an autobiography of Peltier that had just been released. Levy couldn’t put it down, and it remains his all-time favorite book.

His parents sent him to Twin Lake Camp for three summers, and he didn’t like it much, but one year while returning to his cabin after a fireworks display he saw a shooting star and took it as an omen.

Then, in 1960 Levy had to do a public speech on any topic. He chose comets. Just before graduation, Levy crashed while riding his bicycle and broke his arm. A cousin gave him a book about the solar system as a get-well present. He devoured it.

“Any doubt that I was going to be interested in the night sky after that was erased,” Levy said. “All there was to do was astronomy.”

David Levy

Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer (left) visited with comet hunter and author David H. Levy at the Seattle Astronomical Society banquet Jan. 27.

Like many astronomers amateur and professional, Levy has kept a log book with notes about all of his observing sessions. His dates back to 1959 when he saw a partial solar eclipse, and as of the end of January included an amazing 20,922 sessions.

“Each one of them I cherish,” Levy smiled, noting about note-taking that, “If you don’t write it down, you haven’t done it.”

His first session looking for comets is dated December 17, 1965. It was nearly 19 years until he found his first in 1984. He’d logged a half dozen by 1990. Most of his comet hunting was visual in the early days, but it was around 1990 that he started doing photographic searches in partnership with Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker. One of the comets they discovered together is Shoemaker-Levy 9.

The gag among comet hunters is that to get famous your discovery has to become really bright. Shoemaker-Levy 9 didn’t do that, but the spectacular collision of its fragments with Jupiter in 1994 was a historic event.

“What it’s famous for is what it taught us,” Levy said “In colliding with Jupiter, it gave Earth a lesson in the origin of life.”

“It doesn’t prove that a comet collision means that life is going to start on a world,” he added. “What it does show is that when comets collide with a world, life eventually can start. It doesn’t mean that it does, but it’s one of the ways it does.”

“We’re all the progeny of comets,” Levy said.

His presentation was enjoyable and his autobiography promises to be an engaging read. It will be his 35th book. Watch for news about it in this space later this year.

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