Click the image below to view photos from Levy's visit.
Have you ever gone outside, and just looked up at the sky? Dr. David Levy of the Jarnac Observatory in Vail, Arizona has done just that all his life as an astronomer and comet discoverer. Now, he is motivating and inspiring students and all science lovers to look up and feel what it means to be a part of something greater.
This November, in conjunction with the college’s Center for Space Science Education and Public Outreach, the Innovation and Leadership Institute’s President’s Forum series welcomed Dr. Levy as he presented A Nightwatchman’s Journey: Inspiring Future Leaders in STEM Career Fields Through Space Science and Astronomy, a lecture describing his own journey as an astronomer as a means to encourage young people to enter careers in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Dr. David Levy is one of the most successful comet discoverers in history, having detected 22 comets in total, nine of which utilizing his own telescopes. He is the author and/or editor of 35 books and other publications, and won an Emmy in 1998 as part of the writing team for the Discovery Channel documentary, "Three Minutes to Impact." He is a monthly column contributor for Astronomy magazine, and his "Nightfall" feature appears in each issue of the Canadian magazine Skynews.
In total, Dr. Levy has found a total of 13 comets, 12 of which are still around – with the exception of Shoemaker-Levy 9. Discovered at the Palomar Observatory in California with the help of Levy’s teammates Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in 1994, resulting in the most spectacular explosions ever witnessed in the solar system.
In describing the discovery of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and the events leading up to its collision with Jupiter, Dr. Levy says “our whole lives were consumed by this comet.” By bumping into Jupiter, Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart into 21 pieces, which then slammed back into Jupiter creating a huge dust cloud easily seen from earth. The resulting cloud was so big, that had the comet hit earth, the dust and debris would have encircled the entire globe for more than six months, blocking out the sun.
“The collision event was astounding,” said Dr. Levy, “it was as if nature said ‘I want to show you a lesson about the universe, and all you need to do is watch’.”
As a boy, Dr. Levy was inspired to become an astronomer while at the Twin Lake Camp for Boys in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. A single shooting star left such an impression on the young Levy, that when he was asked what he wanted to do with his life, he told his parents and camp leaders that he wanted to discover a comet. Although the reaction about his choice wasn’t as enthusiastic as he had hoped (“Levy, how do you expect to make any money doing that?”), he was on his way to becoming a lifetime lover of the night sky and famous for his comet discoveries.
Several other events in Dr. Levy’s life, told from his unique perspective, served as inspiration for students in the audience to latch on to the notion of studying science. For example, in 1984, Dr. Levy discovered his first comet; it was not very bright, but in that moment he learned that the difference between discovering a comet and not discovering a comet is one field of view – that the difference between a success and a failure could be one turn of the lens. “Failure is the great teacher,” he said. “It is the risk of failure that makes a successful project even that much more rewarding and fun to do.”
Dr. Michael G. Gibbs, vice president for advancement and director of the Center for Space Science Education and Public Outreach stated, “David's talk was truly inspirational for our students, especially for those high school students from the community that were able to join us.”
Dr. Levy ended his talk with a word of encouragement: “Many people ask me, ‘how do I become an astronomer?’ I tell them that you don’t need to have a PhD or a master’s degree in astronomy, or take a lot of physics and math classes. I tell them they just need to have enthusiasm about looking up at the night sky and enjoying what it has to offer. All it takes is to go outside, and look up.”
Listen to Dr. Michael Gibbs, Vice President for Advancement, on Let's Talk Stars with Dr. Levy. (Air Date: 12/15/2009)