Light Pollution and the Human Condition

Stars.  The guidepost of the cosmos laid out before us, heralding the greater universe.

To some, the message which the stars depict is a welcoming one, to others they represent a terrifying glimpse at the enormity of reality.  Regardless of how you interpret the stars and our cosmic horizon it is indisputable that the night sky and our view of the Milky Way’s starscape has continually sparked the human imagination to varying degrees.

Arguably the stars have been the single greatest guiding element of human culture since our prehistory.  Science, art, and mythology all owe their origins, in some part, to the stars and those ancient ones who studied them.

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The constellations of Earth’s night sky

From the roaming nomadic tribes of our earliest ancestors to the later sea faring naval adventurers of history, the stars were literal guides through the dark places.

Imagine eons ago, before the modern day, around fires and yurts when deep discussions and wild speculation took place regarding the nature and origin of the stars.  It is these conversations and stories, now multiples of millennium lost to us, which were passed down from family to family, generation to generation, clan to clan, and shore to shore.  It is this type of human speculative imagination along with our yearning to understand and provide meaning for our larger surroundings which eventually became the basis of human culture.

While deciphering patterns from the spaces between the stars humankind the world over formed tales of their own, myths which comforted them, evils which terrified them, heroes they aspired to, and Gods in their own image.  Though they certainly didn’t realize it at the time those ancient forgotten humans who were wondering wide-eyed at the vast night canopy were in fact creating the modern world through their star gazing.

But what significance do the stars hold in this modern world of ours?

Over the last several hundred years the stars have faded from the sight of many and there are doubtless some who have lived and died without looking up into the night and seeing the galaxy staring back.  All due of course to the gradually increasing amount of light pollution blazing outward from the most heavily populated modern locals.

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The lights of our modern world 

Now of course we can all see some stars at night, there are those bright and wondrous holdouts who burn defiantly and still shine even among the places of heaviest light pollution.  The moon too is a powerful looming reminder of the worlds beyond our own which wait in space.  But for all the light polluted city dwellers and suburbanites, the hundred or so stars that can clearly be discerned become almost laughable when compared with the true majesty of the cosmos which is revealed in places of near total darkness.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this in places like Cimarron, New Mexico and to a lesser degree in some parts of rural Ohio.

There is something simple and amazing about finding yourself in a secluded spot of nature away from the ubiquity of electric lights and being able to take a few moments to stare up and truly examine the contents of the heavens.  When looking out into the unobscured mass of stars there can be some fantastic sensations: Feeling the almost oppressive enormity of the night sky overhead, being able to clearly trace the cloudy path of the Milky Way; the profile of the galaxy itself, and examining the range of sizes and hues which make up the stars.  These are only a portion of the inspirational effects a few moments of deep stargazing can elicit.

I am certainly no historian, psychologist, or social scientist but having had the chance to experience this view of the stars, which has widely been lost to many of us in modern times, I have to wonder what effect a lack of such views will have on future generations?  Something which has had such a formative effect on the human prehistory has slowly been lost to us through our gradual advancement.  As lights constantly spring up in greater numbers across our civilizations and as our nights become far less black, what change will that have on us as a sentient species?

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On the left the constellation Orion seen in a “dark sky” on the right the same constellation near a light polluted urban area.

 

I can’t help but think the human psyche and imagination has already been affected in some way.

Perhaps as a way to assuage our hubris we as a species should have nightly reminders of our minuscule stature compared with the rest of the universe.

Perhaps we should have more exposure to the celestial orbs and sparkling heavens for the sake of our collective imaginations.

Certainly all types of pollution are harmful.

Our waste is killing our planet, it’s flora and fauna.  Smog and garbage, chemicals and putrescence all slowly kill our natural home and our individual bodies.  However what about our minds and our abilities to wonder and dream?  Does light pollution in some ways extinguish imagination and the sensation of awe in the same ways it extinguishes the stars?

What benefits might there be for us if there could be a restoration of darkness?

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Did You Know There Is A Helium Shortage?

Yes folks that’s right, there is a global shortage of helium looming.  Already supplies are low and there are difficulties finding and refining more of the highly sought after gas.  If you’re like me when I first heard this news a few months ago you might be thinking “Oh yeah?  So what?  Boo hoo, so there won’t be any party balloons at birthdays, big deal.”  As it turns out however helium is used far more extensively than you might think.  The arguably second most popular gas in the world has many important applications in the medical community, it has many uses in scientific equipment, and helium is a component in fiber optics.  Depleted reserves, increased worldwide industry, and the fact that it’s always someones 7th birthday somewhere have lead to an enormous price hike on helium and a greater demand for the gas even as its availability dwindles.

Here are some links to a few articles that present some different views on the helium crisis, take a look:

The Ledger.com

Specialty Gas Report

Gasworld.com

I brought this up before in my post about space exploration and asteroid mining, if you missed it click HERE.  I just thought this was an interesting subject and was worth revisiting.  Next time your at the grocery store or somewhere they sell helium inflatables turn to the clerk with a grimace and ask them how they can sleep at night knowing that they are stealing that helium from some poor asthmatic child.  They probably won’t know what the hell you’re talking about but maybe it will eventually help start a more open dialogue about helium preservation.  In the mean time, anyone out there with a few billion dollars handy should really start working on perfecting the processes of remote asteroid mining cause there are whole chunks of frozen helium just floating around out there beyond our atmosphere.  Not to mention asteroids made from gold, iron, platinum, and the list goes on.

That is all!