Star-struck

Few people are star-struck these days—unless you mean a movie- or rock-star. How could they be when the nightly spectacle is veiled by light pollution?

That expression might strike you as perverse, even as a non sequitur, for isn’t “light” good and “pollution” bad?  In the Bible, people who walked in darkness were the bad guys (them), while the good were in the light (us). In the Land of Mordor, the Dark Lord sat “where the Shadows lie”, far from Bilbo sunning himself at Bag End. Sadly, real human misery is still caused by labeling people as either dark or light.

Since incandescent bulbs were first turned on well over a century ago, darkness is being progressively banished around the world. Hardly anyone wants to go back to when lives were dictated by the dark hours, and our ancestors had to pore over a candle to read, sometimes burning the house down! But lighting is not quite the black and white matter it seems, although it is an uphill struggle to explain.

Something precious that fed the human spirit for eons has been extinguished by universal lighting—a pristine night sky. Few people mourn the loss. Gazing from your window, yard, or a local park in urban North America, Europe, and Japan, you can only see a tiny fraction of the stars and planets that were visible to naked eyes in the past. Two-thirds of Americans now live in places where our own galaxy, the Milky Way, cannot be seen because of sky-glow and air pollution, and the fraction grows as more and more lights go on around the globe. Does it really matter?

Isn’t it another dimension in which we are becoming spiritually disconnected from nature? Richard Louv was thinking of life on our planet when he coined the expression, “nature deficit disorder”, in Last Child in the Woods, and I wonder if we are also impoverished by missing the experience of seeing the wild sky except through the lens of electronic media and science. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, said, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Stars were heavily used as metaphors by writers of the Bible and Quran, but are more familiar today as expressions in conversation and literature than as heavenly bodies in plain sight: how often do you hear star-turn, starlit, star-dust, stardom, star-crossed, Star-Trek, Star-Spangled Banner, etc? Until recently, voyagers used celestial navigation to reach their destination, but a star (read supernova/ comet/ conjunction of planets) can no longer lead the Magi to the manger if it was, say, in Brooklyn.

Detail of Nativity Window. Trinity Church, Boston. Edward Byrne-Jones

Detail of Nativity Window. Trinity Church, Boston. Edward Byrne-Jones

In the past, a night sky studded with stars and planets was familiar to everyone, and those who could interpret mystical meaning in the constellations were hoisted up to become sages. Ever since the Babylonians, people have consulted astrological charts to predict their fate, and farmers and gardeners used the lunar calendar. I read that I should plant onions under a waxing moon and they, like me, are under the sign of Libra.

The brightness of the night sky is reckoned by astronomers on the Bortle scale up to a maximum of 9. Metropolitan corridors, like Washington DC to New York, register 8 to 9, and small developed countries, including England and the Netherlands, are high on the scale even in rural areas. Our small town of Williamsburg in Virginia is 4-5, and most of our National Parks have significant light pollution from the glow of distant cities. National observatories were created in the early Twentieth Century for optical astronomy in dark regions of California, but have had to be moved to mountaintops in Hawaii and Chile.

A perfectly dark sky is hard to find anywhere in eastern North America now, but there is a dark spot rated 1 or 2 on the scale in West Virginia where we have a home in the Monongahela National Forest. The night sky there owes its continuing virginity to a low population density and the fact that most homes and highways are not ablaze with lights. The only places I remember with more dazzling starlight were in New Guinea and Africa, which is still a dark continent and something to celebrate.

If you sat on our deck in West Virginia for half-an-hour after night settles in the forest your eyes would be fully dark-adapted and able to see the faintest celestial glimmers. I recommend sitting inclined on a bank to avoid getting a stiff neck for viewing the azimuth. I’m told that at least 15,000 stars are visible in the Milky Way, plus planets, and other stars and galaxies at distances that defy comprehension. You don’t have to pay or be an astronomer to enjoy this show, although binoculars or, better still, a telescope enrich the spectacle.

Even on moonless nights, there is enough starlight to pick your way along a forest trail or across a meadow, but when clouds are too dense to be pierced by stars or a ghostly moon, it is so dark that you cannot even see your hands or feet. That is Pitch-dark.

The blackouts in European cities during bombing campaigns in World War II and the widespread power outages in north-eastern USA and Canada in 1965 and 2003 were urban lessons in what darkness means. When I lived in a West Yorkshire village the residents refused to allow the council to install street lighting. The main street was pretty dark, but still about 4 on the scale. It is likely, if somewhat exaggerated, that outside lighting helps to deter crime, but the villagers were adamant even during the years when the Yorkshire Ripper prowled the district.

Most people probably won’t object to a darker sky, and some might welcome it. Since thirty percent of outdoor lights point upwards, more directed lighting would reduce sky-glow, save money, and have other benefits. Migrating wildlife is disoriented by nightlights, and perhaps plant growth and even human health are affected. There is increasing evidence that our sleep rhythms are affected by excessive light, although most of it is admittedly from indoor lamps and glaring TV screens and computer monitors, which I am using as I write.

Not many people talk about light pollution though I am not alone because an International Dark-Sky Association exists with chapters in sixteen countries. Perhaps more widespread use of directed lighting will help to reverse sky-glow in future, and janitors will turn off lights in skyscrapers after work. But I doubt that we will ever again hear someone banging on our door like the A.R.P. wardens during the Blitz in London, “Put that light out!”

Next Post: Nose to Proboscis

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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