Backyard astronomy and the weird future

December 12, 2011
A lifetime of looking up
David H. Levy Logbooks, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Among backyard stargazers, David Levy is something of a legend. The Montreal-born science writer and amateur astronomer has been watching the sky since his childhood in the 1950s; he’s been credited with discovering about 150 asteroids and co-discovering 22 comets — including Shoemaker-Levy 9, which, in 1994, famously slammed into Jupiter, causing a massive, well-documented explosion.

And night after night, he has been writing it all down. Now you can read it.

Last month the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada launched an online archive housing PDFs of his lifetime collection of logbooks. (Go to www.rasc.ca and type “David Levy” in the search box.) Volume 00 begins with his first recollections of watching the heavens, including: “Memory of stars resembling friendly beacons in a lonely night.” But that’s a rare bit of poetry: Most of Levy’s log entries are limited to dates, data and a list of what was observed. Still, flipping through the pages upon pages of meticulous records — Volume 23 ends in 2008 — you can get a sense of Levy’s passion for the stars. And, as Levy gained notoriety, his observation sessions even included a few famous guests, such as Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto.

How I learned to stop worrying and love my virtual reality
Chicago Humanities Festival

Between smartphones that answer your casual questions and mass-multiplayer videogames, it’s getting more difficult to make a distinction between the real world and the one inside your laptop. But why worry about it? Go to www.chicagohumanities.org and watch William Gibson — who wrote the sci-fi classic “Neuromancer” and coined the term “cyberspace” — talking at the Chicago Humanities Festival about how technology is changing our day-to-day lives and whether we should be self-conscious about it. “Look at the Victorians. For some reason, they had a need to deny that sex existed,” he says. “When we’re the Victorians, I think that people will say, ‘For some reason they had a need to distinguish between what they thought of as the real and the virtual.’ ”

The author takes a moment to debunk “singularity” — the theory that man and machine will eventually merge in some kind of climax — calling it “the geek rapture.” In Gibson’s opinion, the biggest changes will sneak into our lives gradually, the way Walkmans morphed into iPods, then iPhones. “There’s not going to be any ‘future,’ because things are changing too quickly,” he says. “It’s just going to be . . . stranger and stranger, and as it happens to you, you will be in the present moment, and it will be weird.”

Aaron Leitko

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