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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

In Other Words: Losing Sight of the Stars

Unsplash: Denis Degioanni The Milky Way
I was a child when my grandfather died. I was confused and sad. Grandma walked me into her backyard, pointed up to the night sky, and said that when grandpa died God made him a star in the sky so we could see him every night and that he would always be with us. I took a childish comfort in seeing Grandpa every evening but as I matured I learned the truth. It’s a sweet myth but I hold on to it still. But that star, and thousands more, have disappeared from the backyard view.

It’s getting harder to see the stars from the backyard. We used to kick back on a couple of chaise lounge chairs to stare into the night sky. We’d search for meteors, easy constellations like the dippers and Orion, the Milky Way, and sometimes satellites. We’d wonder about life out there. How far stars were. What space travel would be like. And all of the Big Questions.

But not anymore.  At least not in the city. There’s just too much light interference from the city.  There’s that glow on the other side of the hills by the river that spreads far beyond the city limits. It’s a giant dome of light sitting over the city like some sort of bubble from a superhero comic. The truth is that there’s just too much light. And I’m starting to feel a bit disconnected.

Stars are part of who we are - literally. We are made of stardust components. Scientists have confirmed that the elements that make up our bodies were originally formed in the stars and then landed here. So when we look upwards we are, in a way, looking at our origins, connecting to our past. And it’s fading.

We know for a fact that starlight takes thousands and even millions of years to reach us. So every night we look up into the past painted on the canvas of night. A star could explode and we wouldn’t see it for a million years. Today we are fortunate enough to see what happened millions of years ago.

I am fascinated by how ancient sailors studied the stars and learned how to chart a course over open seas. Sailors used the light of the past to find their way in the present as we should use the light of the past to chart our future.

We need the light of the past to guide our present. We need our past to get to our future. But what happens when we lose sight of our past? What will happen when we can no longer see the stars? Will we be lost? I think so.

Sunday's night sky. Very few stars are visible
Whether it’s out of fear or progress or something else, we are quickly losing sight of the stars in the city. I mean, light is good for safety, work, recreation, but in our thinking if something is good then a lot of that something is even better. We tend to supersize everything. As a result, we are losing sight of our past. We are disconnected from a vital part the world. How can we chart a proper course if we cannot see our past? And that’s the problem.

It is estimated that 80% of Americans cannot see the Milky Way anymore due to light pollution. Light pollution negatively affects our sleep and plants and animals. All need darkness. The problem is so bad that there are now Dark Sky parks scattered in remote parts of the country where light is prohibited and visitors can see the night sky of their youth or what they should be able to see from home.

It would be a shame to lose sight of the stars. The stars are still there but we are obscuring our vision of it with light pollution from cities, roads, parking lots. It’s a problem that we can fix and some cities are doing a great job of addressing it, but if we can’t see the light from our past, then we will surely stumble on a dark path.  If we cannot learn from our past then we are condemned to ignorance. We need darkness. The planet needs darkness. We need to see the stars. I can’t imagine a world without stars.

But I fear that time is nearing.

Cincy lights reflected off cloud cover so much that stars are obscured. 

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