January 13, 2003

Democracy and the Darkness of the Skies

I bought and read a copy of Timothy Ferris' recent book, "Seeing in the Dark," which is about amateur astronomy. I own eight books that Timothy Ferris wrote or edited, and I am a big Timothy Ferris fan, but when I first opened the front cover of "Seeing in the Dark," I read the blurb of the inside dust jacket of the book and found myself strongly (and surprisingly) disagreeing with part of what I read. I never get this worked up when I read Timothy Ferris. What fanned my flames was this passage:

Astronomy is the most accessible and democratic of all the sciences: Anyone can get started in it just by going outside with a star chart on a dark night and looking up. A pair of binoculars suffices to see galaxies millions of light years away, and a small telescope can probe what Ferris calls the "blue waters" of deep space.

I disagreed with this passage for many reasons. For one, there's the money game. To be sure, amateur astronomy is a comparatively affordable science: many people can afford the $2000 VX 102mm Apochromatic Refactor, but not even the U.S. Congress opted to bankroll the $8 billion glorified ant farm known as the Superconducting Supercollider. And more people can afford to buy the equipment for amateur astronomy than at any previous time in history.

While it might well be the most open science, and more open now than ever before, what came to my mind was not the those who can pursue amateur astronomy but those who can't. As author David Korten noted, half of the world's population lives on less than two dollars a day, and some 1.2 billion live on less than a dollar a day. Even buying relatively low-cost astronomy equipment is still an impossible dream for most of the world.

But, as even Timothy Ferris noted, anyone can look up in the sky at night and simply stargaze for free. This is true, but even this simple inexpensive act remains out of reach for much of the world's population. One reason involves the advent and proliferation of gas-and-electric lighting in modern times and the resuling light pollution. One NASA website article on light pollution cited astronomers who assembled the first World Atlas of Artificial Sky Glow: they estimate that "99% of the US and European population live in areas considered light polluted."

Light pollution obviously occurs more frequently in urban areas. And if current trends continue, according to UN estimates, half of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2007, and 60% by 2030. Sadly, more and more of us, when we look up at night, can sympathize with the first sentence in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer: "The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel."

There are ways to turn back the tide. For one, encourage the reduction of income inequality and global economic policies that force massive numbers of people to migrate into cities. For another, become anti-light-pollution activists. It doesn't mean demanding the abolition of all lights and having to bump around in the dark; it can mean encouraging more energy-efficient and glare-free streetlights. Efforts in Connecticut successfully convinced that state to replace 180,000 streetlights as they wear out.

I support such efforts to redarken our skies, both for astronomy and perhaps a whole lot more. One of the things that I'm most proud to own is a poster on the wall of my apartment which I bought two years ago on a trip to California at the Berkeley Hall of Science. The poster is called "Earth and Night", and it is a mosaic of photographs taken at night of the planet Earth by U.S. Air Force weather satellites.

You can see light created by slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropics, massive oilwell burns in the Middle East and Siberia, and blotches of light in the waters around Japan and Korea by fishing fleets who hang lights on their boats to attract squid and saury to the water's surface. You can't see any countries but you can see the outlines of entire countries and even continents demarcated by the lights of prominent cities. (The light from the cities of Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago, Muskegon and Grand Rapids clearly draw the outline of Lake Michigan.) A passage on the poster reads in part:

The image testifies that hundreds of millions of people today have no dark sky and are thus denied the nighttime universe. Nor do they know the exquisite thrill of a meteor shooting across the sky, nor the humility brought on by the resplendence of two thousand stars wreathed by the Milky Way. At a time when the very survival of our species depends on finding a common vision, we have wrapped Earth in a glowing fog.