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The Darker Side of Light

After a few months of inactivity I’ve developed an idea that will keep me busy blogging.  It’s been cloudy for so much of the summer so I haven’t been able to do much observing.  My attention, therefore, has turned to other activities related to astronomy that I can pursue when the weather is not ideal for observing.  If you’ve read any of my previous articles on this site you’ve probably read about light pollution.  Maybe you’ve heard of it elsewhere or perhaps you’ve never even considered the possibility of light being a pollutant.  While electric lighting is a marvel of the industrial age and a wonderful aide to modern life it also, like many good things, has a darker side.

From the beginning of life on Earth approximately 4 billion years ago all of Earth’s creature, including humans, have lived in an unending cycle of light and dark.  Bright sun-drenched days give way to the darkness of night and the majesty of a star-strewn sky with its backbone the Milky Way arching across from horizon to horizon.  Life has evolved according to that cycle and it has flourished.  It wasn’t until just over 100 years ago that we began introducing large quantities of artificial light into the environment.  This artificial light disrupts the light-dark cycle (also known as the circadian clock) that life has depended on for billions of years.  It has endangered species like insects, turtle, hundreds of species of birds, and all manner of nocturnal creatures.  Artificial light is also a known contributor to many human diseases such as obesity, insomnia, diabetes, and hormonal cancers.  Besides the biological effects of artificial light, it is also a massive waste of energy.  Every year in the United States alone, poorly designed or over-used light that shines up into the sky wastes $2.2 billion!

Last, but certainly not least, artificial light has destroyed the night sky that humans have loved for thousands of years.  When the lights from un-shielded fixtures shine up into the sky the light scatters when it hits particles in the air.  The result is called skyglow.  You can clearly see the effects of skyglow when you look towards a city or town at night from a distance.  The yellow, orange, or pink glow in the sky is the sum of all the light from all the street lights, parking lot lights, stadium lights, residential lights, etc…and their light scattered in the air.  The dome of light obliterates all but the brightest stars and the Milky Way is a thing of the past.  Depending on the size of the city, skyglow is noticeable from as far as 100 miles away as a dome on the horizon.

Light pollution has severe negative consequences on my pursuit of my hobby of astronomy as I have to drive considerably far from my home to view under dark enough skies.  I currently drive 33 miles from my home in north Baltimore to reach my observing site in Fawn Grove, PA and even there the effects of light pollution are quite pronounced and the Milky Way is barely visible on clear, moonless nights.  To reach a location almost totally unaffected by light pollution I’d have to drive five hours north to Cherry Springs State Park near Coudersport, PA.

What I’ve decided to do over the next couple months (or however long it takes) is to compile a photo essay of sorts that chronicles the effects of light pollution throughout the Maryland and Pennsylvania area.  My goal is to photograph constellations, horizons, skylines, and light fixtures everywhere to make known to my readers the harmful effects light pollution has on the night sky and astronomy.  I will visit many locations throughout Maryland from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, to a swamp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to rural York County, PA,  an international dark sky park, and many places in between.  I hope that this project will open some eyes and convince people of the reality of light pollution and the truth that it is something that we CAN fix.

In the United States today, eight out of ten people will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime because of light pollution.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  Through public education and teamwork with local governments we can reverse the harmful effects of light pollution and preserve the night sky and its splendor for future generations.

The Street Corner Astronomer

A couple weeks ago I had a very pleasant surprise while visiting my soccer bar in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  I was at Slaínte watching the United State’s first World Cup 2014 qualifier match and upon leaving I saw something I did not expect.  A blue Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a fork mount was set up right on the brick steps of the south end of Broadway Square!  I immediately told my friend and his brother that I’d meet them back at his house to play some FIFA but I absolutely had to check out this display.  The telescope was an 8″ SCT and was owned by a man named Herman Heyn.  Herman is an elderly man who brings his scope out on weekends whenever the weather is clear.  He goes by the name of “Baltimore’s Street Corner Astronomer” and has been setting up his telescopes in Baltimore since 1987!  He is rather well-known among Fells Point regulars and residents by his blue SCT scope with the words “HAV-A-LOOK” printed on the side of the optical tube.  Herman delights in letting people peer into his scope and see sights such as Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, Venus, the Pleiades, and some of the Messier open clusters.  Most of the passerby are intrigued by the telescope having never had the experience before.  While talking with Herman, I watched about ten people look into the scope and they all had the typical wow-factor reaction.  The object of the night’s observation was Saturn and the awestruck visitors were simply delighted to have seen Saturn for the first time in their lives!  However, for every believer there is a doubter.  Several people passing by tried to convince me it was a fake and that we were just looking at a picture of Saturn taped over the aperture.  Those poor people.  They’ve yet to experience the joy of gazing at a beautiful ringed planet almost one billion miles away.

While talking to Herman about our shared interest in astronomy I found out that he’d been interested in the subject since the 8th grade when his science teacher taught an astronomy lesson.  I quickly developed a respect and admiration for Herman and his devotion to spreading the word about astronomy.  His desire to spread his passion to random people is admirable and I wish there were more people like him in our hobby!  After taking a quick peek at Saturn at about 130x I dropped the remaining couple dollars from my wallet into his donations hat and regrettably had to leave.  I spent about 20 minutes talking with Herman and I left very encouraged by the encounter!  I hope to go down to Fells Point again very soon and hopefully HAV-ANOTHER-LOOK!  Check out Herman’s website at hermanheyn.com!

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