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I wrote on why we should care about “dark sky” issues a few years ago for the local newspaper in Lake Geneva. Despite a modest recent upsurge in interest in space exploration, it still applies to our relationship with the dark sky.

 

ALL THERE IS?

Driving northwest from Chicago, toward Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, as we begin to cross farmland, I notice domes of light pop up on the horizon. I soon learned that these are artificial light emissions rising up from villages and towns and shopping and industrial areas. These light domes are what astronomers call light pollution, and they increasingly make the sky seem to glow while interfering with man’s ability to see the stars clearly. Scientists now know that some 50 percent of the light on earth seen from space is wasted energy, serving no purpose, accidentally spilling upward. An estimated one and a half billion dollars a year of such wasted light energy is emitted skyward from the U.S. alone. Now, some two-thirds of the night sky around our globe is clouded by such man-made light pollution.

One of the often overlooked dimensions of conservation in our natural habitat is man’s wasteful and damaging pollution of the night sky with un-needed and easily attenuated man-made light. This is one aspect of atmospheric pollution we can readily control.

Way too many of our street lights, security lights, and shopping lights, from major cities like Chicago to small towns like Lake Geneva are robbing our people, young and old, of seeing the wonders of the night sky. The Milky Way, the massive galaxy of which the earth is a part, is invisible to most people in cities and even small towns. Most of the starry sky is invisible, because of modern light pollution.

When the University of Chicago opened Yerkes Observatory, the world’s first astrophysical laboratory and still home to the largest conventional telescope ever created, on the shores of Lake Geneva in the tiny village of Williams Bay, it was because there was little to no light pollution. The village, some 85 miles from Chicago, had yet to be electrified in 1897 when the famed observatory opened, and the large lake provided the observatory almost absolute darkness for viewing toward the east, south, and west.  Even today, when most modern research telescopes are located on mountain tops in remote unpopulated areas, we were recently able on a clear summer’s night to stand on the lawn outside Yerkes and, prompted by an expert observer, begin with our naked eyes, to make out the Milky Way and other long unseen mysteries of the stellar umbrella.

Having just seen a documentary on light pollution called “The City Dark” on PBS, that talked about the disappearance of details in the night sky for so many people, and even the possibility that too much light at night could contribute to health problems for some, I experienced an “aha” moment about modern society. Part of the film’s premise is that light pollution was taking away the visual connection to the vastness of the universe among younger generations, and perhaps contributing to a growing self-centeredness. I wondered if the lack of public and governmental support for a manned space program is partly because we are being increasingly disenfranchised in our relationship to the cosmos.

Have today’s generations begun to believe that our increasingly urban life here on earth, under our expanding localized bubbles of light, is “all there is” for mankind? Or are we still part of a cosmic continuum that offers endless learnings, exploration and even a relative eternity of succession for our species and life now on earth? Pointing our man-made lights downward and lifting our eyes once again to the night sky may point the way to fresh possibilities.

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June 2019
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