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Director’s Corner – Losing the Night Sky

Jennifer Wiseman

Welcome to the DoSER Director’s Corner! Here Jennifer Wiseman shares her reflections on public dialogue at the interface of science, ethics, and religion and how DoSER is working to support constructive exchange and understanding between these communities. 

Losing the Night Sky

Dear DoSER Friends,

The last time you were outside at night, how dark was it? How many stars were you able to see? As an astronomer, I see far-off stars daily through my work with remote telescopes, and I was drawn to astronomy through my childhood of observing the awe-inspiring vista of the dark rural Ozark skies. But I can’t remember the last time I saw more than a few dozen stars above my current home near Washington DC. I am not alone. Today approximately two-thirds of the world’s population lives in or near a metropolitan area where stars are often barely visible in the night sky, despite the fact that over 5,600 stars are potentially visible to the naked eye! Without a doubt, the advent of artificial lighting created unprecedented opportunities for society’s advancement. But just as our atmosphere scatters the sun’s light across the sky, giving us our uniform blue ceiling, it also scatters our cities’ constant glow, forming a hazy dome over residents as far as 100 miles away. Although light pollution is not directly harmful to daily human life, it obscures our window into the cosmos, a view that was a constant source of inspiration for human beings for millennia.

What have we – as individuals, as societies, as a species – lost since this curtain of stray photons settled between us and the spectacular array of stars, planets, nebulae and galaxies overhead?

While professional astronomers study stars with instruments largely unaffected by light pollution, for those with less technically advanced tools it is more and more difficult to access the wonders of our galaxy. Furthermore, the beauty and drama of the night sky has inspired countless generations of scientists, from Ptolemy and Copernicus to Hubble and Sagan, but for new generations, the spark of scientific curiosity engendered by witnessing firsthand the “flow” of the Milky Way or the streak of a shooting star has become increasingly rare.

The round-the-clock presence of artificial light has medical professionals worried as well. Research is uncovering a variety of psychological and physiological repercussions of our fundamentally altered habitat. For example, artificial light causes changes in our circadian rhythms that have serious consequences on our sleep, which in turn affects virtually every other area of our daily functioning and health. Some studies even suggest a potential link between working night shifts and certain types of cancer. Sadly, our constantly-lit environments are also adversely affecting animals who depend on nocturnal cycles for their own well-being.

But could there be an even more fundamental effect on our lives from being cut off from the night sky? A sense of awe and humility in response to the sky and stars above has been a foundation on which culture, religion, and a sense of identity have all rested since the very earliest civilizations. Could it be that our disconnection from the cosmos has some impact on society’s values and self-understanding?

These are compelling questions, and on May 10th, 2012 DoSER along with the American Astronomical Society examined them at last year’s Losing the Night Sky event. In addition to screaning “The City Dark: a search for night on a planet that never sleeps,” which addresses the extent and implications of light pollution and ubiquitous lighting, we also hoasted a panel discussion about the implications of this modern phenomenon on science, health, and the human spirit.

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