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The project of a lifetime

PLATTSBURGH When some people look at the night sky, they see stars, maybe a meteor shower, if theyre lucky. However, not everyone looks at it and has it change their life. For Dr. David H. Levy, that is exactly what happened. On Aug. 29, Levy came to the State University of New York at Plattsburgh to give a presentation titled A Night-Watchmans Journey: My Life and Hard Times as a Searcher of Comets, during which he explained his passion for astronomy beginning at a young age. At age eight, Levy saw his first meteor in the sky and immediately was overtaken by the night sky. Over the following years he took notes of what he saw in the sky, and eventually went to the Adirondack Science Camp at Twin Valleys Outdoor Education Center near Lewis, during the summers of 1964-1966. Now if there is anything I can suggest, said Levy, [it would be] two things. Number one, get friendly with the sky. Number two, write it down. If youre going to observe the night sky for any reason, write it down. During his time at summer camp, he was given an assignment by the camp director to come up with a science project that could last a lifetime and might fail, explained Levy. A while later, Levy learned of a comet found by two Japanese astronomers. Suddenly it hit me ... I am going to search for comets. Its going to take a lifetime and its going to fail. Thats my project, said Levy. For many years Levy worked to find comets, but it wasnt until Nov. 13, 1984, that he actually discovered his first one and continued to find them almost every year for the next several years. Its a sport. Not so much a science, said Levy of finding comets. Its more an art or a sport. And for me if it is a sport, it is the worlds slowest sport. There will never be an Olympic gold medal for comet hunting. Because the games are not played over a couple hours. Theyre played over a couple days or lifetimes. In 1993, Levy, along with Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, discovered what became known as Shoemaker-Levy 9, a comet that is famous for its collision with Jupiter from July 16-22, 1994. As soon as the comet struck the outer regions of Jupiters atmosphere, it fell apart and broke up and dispersed itself into Jupiters upper regions, explained Levy. And over the course of that week, Jupiter just lit up like a Christmas tree with the enormity of the impact. Levy added that if Fragment G of the comet were to hit Earth, a cloud would cover the entire planet and stay for a year. It wouldnt cause the extinction of humanity by any stretch. But, it would certainly make things difficult for us, said Levy. We would certainly focus our attention on a problem that really needs attention. Levy has discovered 22 comets to date and continues to search. He is also the science editor of Parade magazine, the writer/editor of 35 books and was a part of the team that won an Emmy for the script of the documentary, Three Minutes to Impact.

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