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Ray Jayawardhana's exotic literary pursuits

Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at U of T, photographed while reading in the lounge at the Porter terminal at Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto on July 15 2011.

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

As a kid, I read in bed a lot, sometimes while eating, much to my mother's dismay. These days, I read often while on travel - in airports and airplanes, but also in more exotic locales.

As an astronomer, I use mountaintop observatories in Chile and Hawaii. During long nights at the telescope, while taking data or waiting for clouds to pass, I find time for reading. Recently, I spent seven weeks in Antarctica, five of them camping out on a remote ice field with just seven other people, two to a tent. On most days, if the winds were bearable, we went out on snowmobiles in search of meteorites and found 900 specimens. With continuous sunlight and bone-chilling temperatures outside, it was a delight to curl up with a book in my makeshift bed after a hard day's slog.

I read a lot of non-fiction, especially biographies of writers, political leaders, explorers and scientists. It was a bit surreal to read David Crane's Scott of the Antarctic while living in a "Scott tent," having smelled the pungent stench of seal blubber in the Discovery Hut and seen some of the locations mentioned. Other recent favourites include John Ferling's The Ascent of George Washington, which fed the political junkie in me, and The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, about scientific discoveries at the root of English Romanticism.

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I tend to be picky about novels and usually depend on the word of trusted friends. Plus I try to catch up on classics I should have read but never did. I love to read novels based in different parts of the world. One I read recently is Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses. Its minimalist prose and clever construction appealed to me.

Ray Jayawardhana is Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and author of Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System.

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