International Dark Skies Week
Tomorrow marks the last day of International Dark Skies week. This was created in 2003 by high school student Jennifer Barlow, meant to encourage people to look up, and help reduce the light pollution that limits our abilities to do so. Because of this, I've decided to use our blog to discuss one of my favorite topics: the night sky.
The Importance of Looking Up
3,000 years ago, early observers in what is now Armenia identified what we call Haley's Comet. They mapped the patterns of its passage, and created a theory on where it came from. Not long after, Roman merchants prayed to Mercury to grant them safe travels. In every culture, on every part of the planet, in all of history, people have been looking up and being fascinated with what exists outside of our realm. It fueled imagination, brought hope to those who find religious significance and inspired discovery and exploration.
Those same celestial bodies unify history and geography. No matter where you go on Earth, you can find those same stars and planets. People in the ancient world could look at them together, and have something to counter their differences.
I study physics, and I do so because I wanted to understand everything around us. The idea that the early researchers in my discipline did the same thing thousands of years ago is, to me, quite profound. My fondest memories from childhood involved going into the mountains to watch meteor showers. I was lucky to live in Humboldt at the time, where dark skies were a fifteen minute drive. For most people, that isn't the case. Millions of children will never get to have the same experiences that I did. Some wonderful scientists may have been lost simply because they were never inspired by the natural world.
Research suggests that two thirds of all U.S. residents live in places too bright to make out stars. In 1994, when the Los Angeles area experienced a major blackout, residents called emergency responders to report a 'strange, silvery cloud' in the sky. They had never seen the Milky Way before.
Light pollution kills millions of birds each year, as they are driven off course and often impact illuminated buildings. It affects human health, disrupting natural sleep cycles, and the health of plants. In a time when energy conservation is a major point of discussion, it's worth noting the massive amounts of electricity used to illuminate things that we don't need illuminated. I won't make a complete list here, since it's been done, and can easily be found via the International Dark Skies Association and other websites.
The fix for these problems is ridiculously simple. The first is to simply not require that your entire back yard be illuminated all night. Numerous studies have found that the illumination is not a crime deterrent in any way and may, in fact, increase crime. If you insist on having that security, installation of a simple timer or motion activated device can limit the amount of light and electricity used. You may also consider, as I have, switching to the lowest power light bulb you can. At night even a small light can go a long way.
The second option is what we call shielding. Shielding allows you to make efficient use of outdoor lights by focusing them in the objects you actually want illuminated. These can take the form of baffles on top of the lights, allowing you to lose less energy, or barrel type lighting that will focus on a specific area (rather than large flood lamps).
Finally, the most important fix is to discuss the issue. If you haven't done it before, go to a dark sky location, look up, and imagine what it would be like to have that view nightly. I recommend Tonopah, Nevada, if you ever have the chance to visit. Then you can tell your friends, and get others to think through their lighting choices, and to talk to businesses that contribute heavily to pollution. If we all pay attention, and put in even a small amount of effort, we can have the night sky back.
International Dark Skies Association - http://darksky.org
Dark Site Finder - http://darksitefinder.com/map/
Starry Night Lights (dark sky friendly lightings) - http://www.starrynightlights.com/
Extra: My Favorite Picture
The blog post is over now. You're welcome to leave. But if you're up for an encore, I'm including one of my favorite pictures of all time below:
This is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field survey. From our perspective, this square is one thirteen millionth of the sky. The exposure looks back billions of years to the earliest parts of our universe. These are not stars. These are galaxies- 10,000 of them. It's predecessor, the Hubble Deep Field was very important in showing is how much is out there. And how much is it? From pictures like this, astronomers have estimated that the universe contains 1 billion trillion stars. That's 10 to a power of 21, which is more than we have grains of sand on Earth. Pictures like this are why I believe that humans need to be able to look up, to look out into the universe, to understand how we fit into it.