Imagine a future generation who has never seen a star in real life. It’s a future when the night sky has transformed into a thick layer of artificial light and micro particles that doesn’t let through the sight of any stars or planets, not even the moon is visible. What effect would that have on us and other life forms on earth?
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”If you see something, say something”. The words are in black on the back of my train card. My first thought is that it is critical statement or a public art piece by someone like the artist Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger. I continue reading: ”If you see a suspicious package or activity on the bus, platform or train, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell a police officer or an MTA employee. Or call the toll-free Terrorism Hotline at 1-888-NYC-SAFE”. I am on the train, on my way to Times Square. The first thing I spot when I arrive and exit the train station, is a gigantic film screen right in the middle of everything. It shows a commercial loop that promotes people to join the American Army. I wonder if I should report it as a suspicious object in favor of terror?
Times Square on the whole reminds me of 24/7 summer time twilight in the very far north of Sweden. I look up in the sky. It’s a clear night but no stars at sight in this particular spot. The lights at Times Square reflects the sky so that it looks bright and varies in grayish-pink, grayish-yellow, grayish-blue and grayish-green. To watch this sky is like looking down in a pot of boiling chemicals. I continue my walk a couple of blocks to the northeast and end up at the Top of The Rock to watch the night view from above. The sky glow is massive, a rainbow shaped orange shade that gradually turns to grey in the upper parts of the sky. An amateur astronomer born in Queens tell me that when he was a child he used to watch the Milky Way from his back yard. It’s now about 30 years since I saw it from Manhattan or Queens, he says. His children have never ever seen it.
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The next day in the darkness at the Hayden Planetarium the lecturer shows us a stunning 3D-animation of the earth at night, rotating in space. Here the nighttime on earth is all over the globe simultaneously, which transforms it to a dark ball with lighter parts spread over the surface, that reminds me of stars constellations. In my mind, the idea we have about earth as something very unique, this vivid blue planet in the eternal universe, suddenly is put into question. All of the artificial lighting on our planet makes the earth blend in surprisingly well in the star packed cosmos. I am thinking that maybe, ever since industrialization, we more or less consciously, light by light, created a safety package for earth itself, as camouflage during night hours, from whoever might want to surprise us from space some dark night? My thoughts get interrupted by the lecturer happily announcing:
– there it is, the brightest spot on earth; NYC – our home!
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Light pollution is excess light created by humans, a side effect of industrial civilization. Among other consequences, it disrupts ecosystems, can cause adverse health effects, obscures the stars for city dwellers, and interferes with astronomical observatories. Its sources include building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, commercial properties, offices, factories, streetlights, and illuminated sporting venues. The entire area consisting of southern England, Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany, and northern France have a sky brightness of at least 2 to 4 times above normal. The only place in continental Europe where the sky can attain its natural darkness is in northern Scandinavia. In North America the situation is comparable. From the east coast to west Texas up to the Canadian border there is very significant global light pollution.
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In the 1800- and early 1900 century it was possible to observe stars from the Stockholm Observatory in the very city center in the capital of Sweden. To secure the possibility to continue observation of space from Stockholm at large another observatory was built in mid 19th century ”far” outside the city in a rural area, which today is a suburb 15 minutes away with the train. This observatory is of course, as well as the one in the city center not in use anymore. Nowadays, if we want to make proper observations of cosmos from Sweden, we need to go far north (about 1237 km/769 miles from Stockholm) to Esrange Space Center where they facilitate a huge light pollution safe area.
Obviously we can grasp the importance to observe cosmos for astronomers, but why would it nowadays be considered of importance to be able to see the stars for everyday people? Some, like for instance Tom Callen who is an astronomer and producer at Cosmonova in Stockholm, points out the important not to loose connection to the night sky, since it’s in some aspects related to our origin of the universe. I ask amongst some friends what their connection to the stars is. One says that to her its important to be able to watch the stars to get that scale of perspective as it reminds of the greatness of life and what it means to exist. She points out it is not possible to get that scale of perspective anywhere else on earth, unless you’re standing on the top of for example Mount Everest.
The author Arthur C.Clarke who collaborated with filmmaker Stanley Kubrik on the film 2001 – a space Oddysee, said this about the stars: “Behind everyone alive today stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living since the dawn of this planet. Now, a hundred billion is about the number of the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. So this means that for everyone who has ever lived, there could be a star. And of course, stars are suns, with planets circling around them. So isn´t it an interesting thought that there is enough land in the sky for everyone to have a whole world?”
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Since the early 1980s, a global dark-sky movement has emerged, with concerned people campaigning to reduce the amount of light pollution. The International Dark-Sky Association is a US-based non-profit organisation incorporated in 1988 by a group of astronomers in order to encourage darker skies (through lighting that creates less skyglow) in the USA, and, eventually, throughout the world. Another initiative for the purpose of darker skies is National Dark Sky Week which is a week during which people all over the United States are encouraged to turn out their outdoor lights in order to observe the beauty of the night sky. This event was started by Jennifer Barlow of Midlothian, Virginia in 2002 and through a mail correspondance with her I understand her ambition to also spread the idea with the NDSW internationally. The next time it happens is in 2008 April 6-12. Wherever you are, maybe you should give it a try?