October 15, 2007
An article in the New Yorker reminded me of the beauty of nighttime. “The Dark Side” (Aug. 20) is not about anything sinister, but it revels in the awe and wonder one finds gazing into a dark night sky.
According to David Owen, the author, dark skies are more and more endangered by light pollution. Especially as sprawl consumes rural areas, the spread of excessive outdoor lighting dims the heavens and our own sense of the grandeur of outer space.
“The stars have not become dimmer,” writes Owen. “Rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see. Air pollution has made the atmosphere less transparent, and high levels of terrestrial illumination have washed out the stars overhead.”
This phenomenon, which is called “sky glow,” blinds us to the lights beyond Earth’s atmosphere. In most urban areas in America, the moon, a few bright planets and a few outstanding stars are about the only celestial orbs visible to the naked human eye.
Owen states that, millennia ago, when man was first exploring the natural world, the naked eye was all he had. Given the natural darkness of the Earth, star-gazing was far easier and more rewarding than it is today. This, of course, gave way to astronomy, in which Galileo was a pioneer.
Owen points out that Galileo was able to see myriad stars and planets with his naked eye simply by studying the heavens on moonless nights. He didn’t need much of a telescope to make his discoveries and draw his conclusions about the cosmos and the location of the Earth in the great whirl of heavenly bodies.
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Today, most Americans are robbed of a truly dark sky and, therefore, deprived of communing with the infinite mysteries of space.
Not only is this a loss to individual scientific inquiry, it is also a loss of perspective on what it means to be human.
If there is nothing greater to our perceptions than ourselves or our human constructs, then it is easy to fall into an anthropocentric myopia where man is supreme to nature. In today’s environmentally challenged world, we need, more than ever, a sense of awe for nature.
Owen describes a scale for determining the darkness of night skies. The Bortle Scale, named for an astronomer who lives on the East Coast, gives Class 1 the highest ranking of darkness. In the U. S. today, according to Bortle, the darkest we get is Class 2, with most populated areas defined by Class 5, 6 or 7.
One of the darkest night skies in the U. S., discovers Owen, is near Natural Bridges in Utah. Anyone who has been to this remote Canyonlands region has probably seen a starspangled sky of inspiring clarity and brightness.
The experience of studying stars and planets and galaxies with the naked eye provides a “direct relationship with the nighttime sky,” writes Owen, “which, throughout human history has been a powerful source of reflection, inspiration, discovery and plain old jaw-dropping wonder.”
At my house in the Fryingpan Valley, five miles from Basalt, I still get that sense of wonder. The Milky Way soars overhead in a starsmeared swath, and planets and stars glint brightly from an inky background. When I cast my glance down the valley, however, the sky glow of Basalt is a growing presence.
As land development quickly and irrevocably urbanizes the Roaring Fork Valley, it would be prudent for planning commissions, building departments and town councils to mandate skyfriendly lighting. There is no reason to blot out the heavens, especially when sensitive lighting techniques can minimize unwanted sky glow.
If we are ever to grant the natural environment the importance it carries for us and all of life, we need to instill wonder in nature. A new view of the night sky is where we can begin to pay heed to our natural surroundings and our place in nature.
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