Light is beautiful. It illuminates a world of beauty for us to appreciate while giving us a tool to decipher the riddles of the universe. In astronomy, it’s always about more photons! Because more photons = more data = better results. But in an increasingly technological world, more photons can be a bad thing. Especially when the artificial photons overpower the natural.
I was lucky to spend most of my youth living away from the bright lights of the city, but with the sprawling metropolis of Toronto to the South, I could always see the orange glow that blocked out the horizon. I also had Barrie not far to the Northeast, proving that even a smaller city can wash out a chunk of the starry sky. Though I was still lucky enough to see the Milky Way and many different constellations, providing plenty of good targets for my small telescope. But every time I go back to my home town, it seems a bit tougher to observe.
Things are getting worse for stargazers these days. With the price of LEDs dropping, brighter and more efficient lights are popping up everywhere, creating more light pollution across the globe. The map above shows just how much further one has to travel to see the true night sky. While doing my travelling planetarium shows, I seem to meet more and more kids each year who have never seen what a true night sky looks like. They almost don’t believe it when they see it for the first time, even artificially in the dome.
There is hope though. Many communities are using lights that point downward, limiting light pollution. You can find out more about them here. There are also ‘dark sky’ communities, like the town of Gravenhurst, Ontario. After 9pm, street lights are dimmed or turned off, creating a better night sky environment for residents and visitors. About 45 minutes West of the town is the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, which is one of my favourite spots to visit.
“So what if people can’t see the sky?” I have been asked that question a few times, and I usually answer the same way. Looking into the vast night sky, full of stars, gives a person a sense of wonder and awe. It’s a feeling our ancestors have felt since the beginning of our species, and it naturally grounds us, giving us a reverence for nature and filling a need we all have to balance the constant stream of the artificial.
So even though it takes a bit more travel to reach as good night sky, it will always be worth it.