The 11-year-old boy stood on a slope of Montreal’s Mount Royal and gazed in wonder at the spectacular sight in the heavens above: The moon hovering over a sliver of the daytime sun, causing an eclipse.
Others might have just stored the memory away. But the shy boy, David Levy, decided to jot down the celestial show in his chunky schoolboy’s writing.
“Partial Solar Eclipse. Just last part observed because of clouds.”
The anodyne observation in 1959 became entry No. 1 and the start of a lifetime’s obsession. Over the course of half a century, Mr. Levy grew from mildly autistic boy to man and followed up with more than 16,000 entries about sightings from novas to meteor storms; made discoveries of a near-record 23 comets, notably Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that smashed into Jupiter in 1994 in the cosmic event of the 20th century; and become one of the most famous amateur astronomers in the world.
His is a life spent pressed to a telescope eyepiece, at hours when most people are sanely asleep, in thrall to the mysteries in the darkened vault above. And now, his entire observation archive has been posted online by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the first such recognition for any Canadian astronomer.
“If you don’t write it down then you’re not observing,” Mr. Levy said from his home near Tucson this week, after coming in from his backyard observatory to prepare entry No. 16,449 in his logbook.
“This,” he says of his 23-volume archive, “just gives a sense of what one man’s passion has led to, session by session, night by night.”
There is sweet irony in the society choosing Mr. Levy for the honour. When he was 19, he ran afoul of brass with the organization, an august group granted its royal charter by King Edward VII. There was a dispute over a piece of equipment and a senior member in Montreal chewed him out.
“He told me I was persona non-grata and I would never amount to anything,” Mr. Levy recalls.
He thought about abandoning astronomy but changed his mind, and went on exploring and discovering and writing it all down in his logs. The scribblings shape the legacy of an explorer of the cosmos: planets, constellations, eclipses, sunspots, moon craters, rainbows and solar halos, it’s all in there. There’s some poetry (“stars resembling friendly beacons in a lonely night”), pencil sketches of planets, shared observations from stargazing friends like the late Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. Most of it, however, consists of routine and methodical annotations.
Nothing motivated Mr. Levy or gave him as much notoriety as his hunt for comets, those wisps of light in the night sky that are the “Holy Grail for amateur astronomers,” he says. The pursuit began as a teenager when, searching for an easy-to-say phrase for an upcoming Grade 10 French oral at Westmount High School, he proclaimed, “ Je veux découvrir une comète.”
He succeeded, though it took him 19 years – 928 hours, 17 minutes to be exact; astronomy does not reward the impatient. Still, no comet would impact so significantly on his life than the one he co-discovered in 1993 with Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker. Its collision with Jupiter in July the following year was dubbed “the biggest explosion ever witnessed in the solar system” by Time magazine. There were U.S. network talk shows, magazine covers, and a visit to the White House under former president Bill Clinton, though Mr. Levy says it was vice-president Al Gore who asked all the probing questions.
“It was as if the comet grabbed the three of us,” he says of himself and the Shoemakers, “and took us into orbit with it for a couple of years.”
It was quite a feat for someone who failed undergraduate physics at McGill University and bypassed science for degrees in English literature at Acadia and Queen’s universities, evidence that astronomy remains one of the few fields of science where amateurs can make a difference.
“You can’t be an amateur surgeon,” the 63-year-old Mr. Levy said, “but you can be an amateur astronomer and accomplish a lot of things.”
Roy Bishop, a past president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who has known Mr. Levy for more than 40 years, calls him “the most remarkable amateur astronomer of the modern era.”
“He’s not only enthusiastic and dedicated but obviously has innate talent,” said Mr. Bishop, professor emeritus of physics at Acadia.
Mr. Levy, who has authored 35 books, did his PhD on “Allusions to Celestial Events” in early modern English literature, and collected honorary doctorates from five universities (including McGill, from which he dropped out after two years), still lives in anticipation of what he might find in the velvet-black sky.
In entry No. 15,489 in his logbooks, he records a stargazing session in which the Milky Way, star clusters and three meteors light up the sky. “One of the finest nights I’ve ever seen,” he writes. “If I were to die tomorrow, I’d have not lived better because I had this night.”
It’s all in the logbooks, along with hundreds of pages of observations and discoveries, there to be perused by 11-year-old boys and girls who might gaze up at the sky, and wonder.