JASPER, ALBERTA , CANADA – Famed astronomer David Levy hits a personal high note
when he reflects on the “spiritual” side of his heavenly work.
it’s everything,” says the modest, Montreal- born Levy. “If I didn’t have a
spiritual aspect to my interest in astronomy, I wouldn’t be doing it. It is
“Not to take away from the science, not to take away from the
observing experience, but the fact that there is a spiritual center to it is
Levy was one of the “star” speakers at the annual Jasper
Dark Sky Festival here in Jasper National Park, where Canada’s magnificent Rocky
Mountain lakes and mountains move from center stage and all eyes turn heavenward
for life-altering views of the largest accessible dark sky preserve in the
I met Levy as I walked into the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge on the
shores of beautiful Beauvert Lake. I passed someone wearing a Hebrew University
of Jerusalem sweatshirt and knew right away that it had to be Levy, who earned a
doctorate in Israel’s capital for his thesis on allusions to celestial events in
Elizabethan and Jacobean Writing.
Levy’s well-known astronomy persona is
tied to the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, which he discovered with Carolyn and
Eugene Shoemaker in 1994 at the Palomar Observatory in California. The comet
collided with Jupiter that same year.
Levy has actually discovered a
total of 22 comets, nine of them with his own backyard telescopes, and is
involved with the Jarnac Comet Survey based at the Jarnac Observatory in Vail,
For a novice like me, it was all a bit overwhelming,
familiarizing myself with this heavenly stuff – at once so distant, and yet so
intimate – in the chill and deep darkness of this Canadian national park, a
World Heritage Site.
So meeting Levy, Montreal-born like me, afforded a
kind of comfortable familiarity, which grew even stronger as the astronomer
turned to his “very Jewish connection” to astronomy through Montreal’s Sha’ar
Hashomayim Synagogue, which his grandfather helped to design.
won an Emmy as part of the writing team for the Discovery Channel’s Three
Minutes to Impact, recalled walking home from the synagogue one Yom Kippur
evening and, looking up at the sky, noticing the10-day-old moon – only to
realize that Jewish people all over the world were also walking home from
synagogues, observing the same 10-day old moon.
“And then it hit me,” he
exclaimed, “that moon has been in that same phase every Yom Kippur… and it is
very incredible that people have been watching the same phase of the same moon
all these years… It is part of what drove home the spiritual center to my
interest in the sky.”
My first night of stargazing here was at Palisades
Center, outside the small town of Jasper. The moonless sky was like a painter’s
canvas, all lit up as I have never seen it with heavenly life.
Canada astronomer, laser pointer in hand, showed us things like structural
images of the Milky Way, besides colorful clouds called nebula, where new stars
were forming, and star clusters resembling grains of sand.
eventually turned our attention to what he called “a smudge in the sky,” which
turned out to be the Andromeda Galaxy – “It’s 2.5 million light years away, so
it’s not just a hop, skip and a jump.”
And then there was another object,
looking as bright as a star, which turned out to be the international space
station with six astronauts inside it! “Once you’re under skies like that where
it’s clear and dark and moonless,” SkyNews Magazine columnist Peter McMahon of
Canada later told me, “you start to see not only the Milky Way... but you see
structure in the Milky Way… like a stretched-out octopus.”
as the “sky-guy in residence” during the entire month of October – designated as
Dark Sky Month here – played a role in getting the festival going three years
ago after walking around town and seeing how dark it really was.
the neatest things about Jasper,” said McMahon,“ is it’s the only place in the
world where you can see the night sky over some of the terrain... not just over
the mountains, but over canyons and glaciers, and hot springs and
McMahon also thrilled listeners with predictions about
ordinary people eventually going off on vacations to outer space! Among other
talks at the festival was a fascinating one about stardust by Jacob Berkowitz, a
Canadian science writer, whose book, The Stardust Revolution, examines ties
between our own human origins and the composition of the stars
“There is actually stardust, and we are it,” said the
The discovery of the origin of the elements, he
said, “turned out to be also the discovery of our own origins, because
scientists in the 1950’s realized that all of these elements – carbon, oxygen,
nickel, gold, phosphorous – they all formed inside stars.”
At next year’s
Dark Sky Festival, Chris Hadfield, Canada’s first astronaut to walk in space,
will be the headlining speaker. For 146 days, Hadfield steered the largest
spaceship ever built through outer space.
While the best time to see the
heavens here is in the deep darkness, Jasper also affords prized opportunities
to see the moon in the daytime and the planets at dusk and dawn.
of the perks of the outdoor experience in Jasper, located about 194 miles west
of Edmonton – whether it’s hiking, boating, skiing, world-class golf or
As early as 1915, visitors recognized the special qualities of
Jasper, when they organized the beginnings of today’s Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
with luxury tents.
The Canadian National Railway took over the fledgling
resort in 1921 and turned it into eight log cabins, launching the Jasper Park
Lodge in 1922 with its popular golf course.
Today’s lodge also includes
the large main building, an outdoor swimming pool, a spa, shops and restaurants,
and, of course, rustic guest cabins.
We often saw elk grazing outside our
own cabin. Of course, one has to be careful to keep a safe distance from them,
we noted on posted warnings, because they can be dangerous.
the lodge, Levy considered the connection between literature and the night sky,
as in his doctoral dissertation taken in Israel – “this country that I love so
About William Shakespeare, one of his “favorite amateur
astronomers,” he mused: “In a lot of my talks, I… picture William Shakespeare
coming back to life… and we all look… fascinated at this ghost of a man sitting
“And I go over to him, and ask him, ‘Would you have written Hamlet
the same way now?’ And he says, ‘No, forget it. Don’t ask me these questions.
I’m not here to talk about Hamlet.
I’m here because there’s a bright
comet scheduled to come in a few months, and I want to see it and I want to take
a picture of it.’” Levy is “almost convinced” that when the bard was seven years
old, his father pointed to the north and said, “Look at that red star over there
in the northwest. That’s a new star that wasn’t there last week, and everybody
is looking at it, and I want my son to look at it as well.”
“I even put
that in the thesis,” Levy concluded.
“I can’t prove it with… footnotes
and endnotes, but it would have been almost impossible that Shakespeare would
have missed it back then.”
It’s an interesting possibility, of course,
but one thing is certain: from images of the Milky Way to the striking beauty of
Jasper National Park, being up here provides a priceless opportunity – no matter
what your level of astronomy experience – to find your own personal relationship
to the night sky.
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