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The City Dark

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I was recently in Alaska as an invitee of GoPro cameras in support of a pretty cool science experiment by Project Aether. Briefly, I was there to assist as they launched weather balloons with GoPro cameras attached in order to collect intra-auroral images. After the weather balloons dropped, the GPS tagged cameras were then retrieved, by several means and with several people. As I receive footage and information, I will be sharing more about this here on this blog.

Before we discuss today’s movie about light pollution, I’d like to share some incredible timelapse footage of what we saw in our dark night sky as captured by WSJ multimedia producer Michael Kofsky;

The Project Aether team had been up in Alaska for a few weeks and auroras were tepid at best (or hidden behind clouds) and would begin in the freezing cold at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Fortunately, the night our group went out to view, as if made-to-order on a clear night, an auroral show began at about 12:30 and lasted, in all of it’s breathtaking and spectacular beauty, for more than an hour. I can count this as one of the most amazing things I have experienced in my life. I could hardly sleep for the impact this made on me.

Auroras in Fairbanks, Alaska are only visible from August through to April and this, of course, has to do with the amount of sunlight that interferes into the nighttime hours. The auroras are there, just obscured by light. Also, it is important to move away from city lights for best viewing. Our locale opened up the night skies for us, resplendent with stars, Venus and Mars, and of course, the aurora.

The annoyance (how annoying? Read this at the Guardian) of interfering light that typically obscures the beauty of the night sky around most towns and cities, brings me to a wonderful independent film I received back in February direct from the hands of the film maker, Ian Cheney, as he was an artist-in-residence at one of the dorms here on the University of Illinois campus. It seems appropriate to share the message of “The City Dark” with you now.

This movie is, for the most part, about astronomy, and astronomers naturally play a big part in the film. How many adults do I know who, as children, wanted to be an astronomer when they grew up? I know I was one. I always figured that was because the night sky is there, accessible yet mysterious at the same time. I now wonder, if I couldn’t see the stars, would I still have had that same desire to become an astronomer that stayed with me until I was 11 years old? Oft repeated throughout the film is how the night sky touches us in ways that inspire us and give us all a sense of scale, and how losing this to excessive light pollution may have psychological, spiritual, philosophical and emotional impacts on us. As Cheney asks, “What do we lose when we lose the night?”

But before you think the entire movie is a philosophical drag, don’t worry. While you are left pondering those questions throughout the film, you are asked also to practically consider what would happen if modern astronomers cannot see the night sky. One of the more dangerous scenarios is that they may not see an asteroid heading our way. As it is, observatories are now relegated to the darkest deserts and islands in order to peer deeply into the night without the light pollution that is like looking through a fog. For those of us interested in other areas of science other than astronomy, there are also plenty of environmental, ecological and physiological aspects to be examined in relationship to light pollution.

“It is more than just humans who are losing the night, ” says Cheney. Hatching sea turtles must orient themselves to the lightest horizon, which used to be the ocean because it reflected starlight…but no more. The hatchlings move toward the wrong light, toward the cities, disoriented away from the ocean. In Chicago, rescuers find birds who have lost their way and have struck the glass of tall buildings. Stars serves as a map for birds as they migrate through the night sky. Birds are disoriented in cities whose lights are “artificial stars”, according to David Williard, zoologist at The Field Museum. Birds are DRAWN to the building lights. In addition to birds and sea turtle hatchlings, all nocturnal animals are affected when there is more light than dark.

If all this light disorients animals, Cheney then wonders,” What is the necessary habitat for humans?” How does all of this light of our 24/7 culture affect us physiologically? We don’t understand the longterm consequences of this type of lifestyle. The notion that this light disrupting our circadian rhythms could be responsible for cancer and influence other diseases seen in industrialized societies is well described in the film. In fact, so compelling is the evidence against too much light, the World Health Organization calls shift work a probable carcinogen.

Cheney reminds us, “Our era is one where the stars left the sky and came down into cities.” ISS astronaut Don Pettit explains that “Smoke stacks used to show how industrialized a city was. Now it is the light that shows how affluent a place is.” Light facilitates social interaction. It also removes the terrors that hide in the night. Humans have chosen to light up their world for numerous reasons without giving thought to what happens if there is no night. After a discussion of the social implications of lighting and lack of it, the movie turns to discuss how humans can have their light but save the night sky, mostly through directing light only downward where it is needed. This reorientation will restore that which many did not realize they were missing. We are encouraged to design lights with the night in mind.

Seeing an aurora, the milky way, dark skies, a shooting star, and the rings of Saturn are all things we might not miss if we didn’t know they were there. The reason to be able to see the night sky may be more spiritual than practical. As Ann Druyan points out, “What is coming of age but realizing you are not the center of the universe?” Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us, “You will be missing a cosmic perspective if you never look up. Your environment is not all there is. Seeing the night sky is the resetting of your ego.”

This movie could have been quite depressing, but through light, enjoyable music, as playful as the twinkling of stars (and you can buy on iTunes) some simple yet charming animations, and a message of hope at the end, it is easy to leave wondering what we are missing without the night, and motivated to do something about it.

International Dark-Sky Association wants to end light pollution

So does Globe at Night

Joanne Manaster About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a university level cell and molecular biology lecturer with an insatiable passion for science outreach to all ages. Enjoy her quirky videos at www.joannelovesscience.com, on twitter @sciencegoddess and on her Facebook page at JoanneLovesScience Follow on Twitter @sciencegoddess.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. CliffClark 9:54 pm 04/16/2012

    I have been thinking for some time now that technology makes this excessive lighting unnecessary. Wouldn’t it be great to turn off all outside city lights at, say, 11 PM, and ensure that any interior lighting doesn’t “pollute” the environment. Infrared or other detection/night vision technologies could ensure the same level of safety for traffic, and roadways, hazards, pedestrian clothing, hospitals, facilities providing other essential services, etc could be marked with chemiluminescent tags to make them visible in a subtle way. Not only would this give us back the night sky, the universe, but we would save a whole whack of energy. My thinking was stimulated by the posting a while back of North Korea at night. It was almost completely dark, while light covered almost one third of neighboring South Korea. Wouldn’t a truly advanced society have outgrown its need to have the lights on all the time, everywhere?

    Link to this

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