Jasper, Alberta — “If I didn’t have a spiritual aspect to my interest in astronomy,” said David Levy, “I wouldn’t be doing it. For me, it is everything.
“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 everything.”
Levy spoke late last month 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 world.
The astronomer earned a doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his thesis on allusions to celestial events in Elizabethan and Jacobean writing.
But he is best known as the discoverer, with Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker, of the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet at the Palomar Observatory in California. The comet collided with Jupiter that same year.
Levy has discovered a total of 22 comets and is involved with the Jarnac Comet Survey based at the Jarnac Observatory in Vail, Ariz.
For a novice like me, all this heavenly stuff was a bit overwhelming, 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 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.
Levy recalled walking home from the synagogue one Yom Kippur evening and, looking up at the sky, noticing the 10-day-old moon — only to realize that Jewish people all over the world were 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.”
During stargazing at Palisades Centre, outside the small town of Jasper, the moonless sky was lit up with all sorts of heavenly life, including structural images of the Milky Way, colorful clouds called nebulas, where new stars were forming, and star clusters resembling grains of sand.
“Once you’re under skies like that where it’s clear and dark and moonless,” Sky News 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.
“One of the neatest things about Jasper,” McMahon continued, “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 waterfalls…”
McMahon thrilled listeners with predictions about ordinary people eventually going off on vacations to outer space one day.
Meanwhile, Jacob Berkowitz, the Canadian author of “The Stardust Revolution,” spoke about the human connection to stardust.
“There is actually star dust, and we are it,” said Jerusalem-born Berkowitz.
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 1950s 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 headline speaker. For 146 days, Hadfield steered the largest space ship 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.
It’s one of the perks of the outdoor experience in Jasper, located about 200 miles west of Edmonton. Others include hiking, boating, skiing, world-class golf, or fishing.
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 learned from posted warnings, because they can be dangerous.
Meanwhile, in the lodge, Levy considered the connection between literature and the night sky in his doctoral dissertation taken in Israel, “this country,” he said, “that I love so dearly.”
The astronomer mused about William Shakespeare, one of his “favorite amateur astronomers,” saying: “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 there [in the audience].
“And I go over to him, and I 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 7 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, 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.