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Chasing Down The Muse: Light pollution kills our history

May 19, 2011|By Catharine Cooper

"For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream."

— Vincent van Gogh

"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight; I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."

— English nursery rhyme

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Often I've wondered about children who grow up without stars over their heads. They are told they are there, but in big cities with powerful sources of ambient light, the night sky is all but obliterated. Think of New York, most of Los Angeles, and of course, Las Vegas.

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While there might be a scattering of the brightest stars visible on clear evenings, could those children have even an inkling of the true magnificence of the heavens above? Even the clarity that was once common in Death Valley is slowly being degraded from the spill of light from Vegas.

But what is the importance of the night sky? And what can we learn from an experience with the stars?

First and foremost, it helps us establish our place in the universe. One tiny light, our small planet floats amid a sea that is measureless. In the darkest of skies, starlight appears to spread infinitely, billions of billions of stars — as Carl Sagan once said. We have no measure of the numbers, only wild guesses as with succeeding year, our abilities to perceive/to see farther and farther increase our grasp of space.

To the ancient Greeks, the night sky was filled with patterns of stars that formed constellations. They named them for warriors, deities and heroes. American Indians believed they were born of stars. The entire precept of astrology, with predictions and analysis of behavior and personality, is based on astral positions at the time of one's birth.

Sailors — before the advent of the compass — used the stars to find their way to sea and home again. Long before the appearance of GPS systems, there were gnomon or sun-shadow disks that operated like a sundial, an Arabian kamal, in the middle ages an astrolabe, and eventually the sextant. Navigation, or a position on the planet, was possible by measuring distances between stars.

We have grown up on starlight, and we are losing it — as well as darkness — more rapidly than any of us can really imagine. And slowly, we are coming to terms with what a loss of darkness ultimately means to our quality of life.

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