We’re lying in bed looking at the stars out the window. Dave shares a scene from an old movie he remembers;
“There’s this blind woman, played by Bette Davis,” he says. “A doctor performs an experimental surgery in hopes that it will restore her sight. Weeks later, alone in her high-rise apartment, she slowly unravels the bandages that have protected her eyes.”
“Wait,” I ask, “Where was the doctor?”
Dave sighs. “How do I know? Anyway, she’s peeling the bandages off layer by layer, painstakingly slow for dramatic effect.”
“When the last of the bandages falls away, she’s overcome with emotion. Outside her window, she sees all the lights of the city for the first time. There are people having dinner in apartment windows across the way, cars on the street below, it’s crazy. She’s seeing these things for the first time. And then-ka-boom! A huge power surge that knocks out electricity to the entire city. A total blackout.”
“Yeah. But, the thing is–she mistakes the blackout for the loss of her sight all over again. She thinks the surgery failed. She’s so devastated that she throws herself out the window.”
“Yeah. Terrible, right?”
“Wait a minute.” My brain goes into overdrive. “That doesn’t add up.”
“A total blackout.”
“It was a total blackout. What’s not to understand about that?”
“Even if the power went out, there would be some light. I mean no-one on the street had a cigarette lighter? No cars with headlamps? No stars in the sky?”
“Well…I…don’t know! Maybe it wasn’t quite like that. I can’t remember.”
“Bette Davis took the lead? I’ll google it.” I type ‘Bette Davis plays a blind woman‘ into my I-phone.
“You know,” Dave says, staring at the ceiling, “now that I think about it, was it Bette Davis?”
“In fact, maybe it wasn’t a movie after all. Could have been one of those Twilight Zone episodes or was it… Night Crawler. You know, I can’t seem to remember.”
Okay, so he’s an unreliable story-teller, but there are other things he’s good at; astronomy for instance. Artificial light, like the kind missing in that movie, is something he notices. And because I’m married to someone who loves the night sky, I notice it, too.
On a clear night, Dave spends most of his night outdoors, gazing through the lens of his telescope at distant planets and stars. When Dave was a kid, his father built a UFO detector, a black box that would sound an alarm if something suspicious zoomed across the night sky. Russel was a huge sci-fi fan and he was convinced, in a Ray Bradbury kind of way, that there was ‘something’ out there. Dave remembers lying on his back in a web lounge chair, waiting for the UFO detector to go off.
I’m not an astronomer, but I love to gaze at a clear night sky. I remember my dad pointing out the Milky Way when I was a kid, but today, 80 percent of the world’s kids can no longer see the Milky Way. Due to an invasion of artificial light, our night skies are thousands of times brighter than they were just 200 years ago.
With so many other things to worry about, light pollution might not seem all that important to you, but all those porch lights, stadium lights, electronic lights, and industry lights might be making you sick. Light pollution has been linked to diabetes, depression, obesity, infertility, and even breast cancer.
There’s a good reason for that; artificial light interferes with the human circadian rhythm, a natural 24- hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness that depends on natural light and near-total darkness. Artificial light interferes with the production of melatonin, a natural sleep inducer that boosts our immune system and plays an important role in the function of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, and testes.
Perhaps at no other time in human history have we had so much trouble falling and staying asleep. And that impacts human health.
Artificial light hurts animals and plants as well.
A 2017 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology showed that bright skies interfere with bird migration. Artificial light confuses birds like warblers and passerines, that traditionally use celestial light to navigate their way south.
On one night a year, New York City pays tribute to those lost in the September 11th terrorist attacks with two bright beacons of light. The Cornell scientists used the tribute to study the effects of bright artificial light on migrating birds. Researchers found that once the migrating birds were trapped in the beams of light, they circled in confusion until exhausted. Based on their data, the researchers persuaded memorial organizers to turn off the lights for 20 minutes or so whenever 1000 or more birds were observed in the beams. Once the lights were turned off, the birds returned to their migratory path.
Artificial light interferes with other eco-systems as well. Amphibians like frogs and toads sing after dark. These songs are an important part of a nightly breeding ritual. So, your garage or porch light actually lowers amphibian populations. Frogs and toads are an important food source for birds, snakes, and other animals, but perhaps even more important, they’re a natural form of insect control. Toads eat beetles of all kinds, including caterpillars, fly larvae, moths, and grubs. They’ll even eat slugs and snails that plague your garden.
On an emotional level, does the night sky still matter? I believe it does and so do astronomers. Looking at all those bright stars makes me feel humble. Small. My problems seem as tiny as a pencil dot. Sometimes that’s a relief.
Like so many of us today, I think of myself a lot. Why is my car making that rattling noise? Will my editor say yes to my new idea? Should I make tuna salad for lunch or egg salad? What is that lump behind my knee? My thoughts are a never ending river of Me-ness I careen around in.
Me, me, me, me, me.
But, when I look into a clear night sky full of winking stars and faraway planets, I feel humble, small, blissfully insignificant. I catch a break from…well…me.
The best thing about light pollution…drum roll please… is that it’s completely and utterly reversible. Baffling and shielding lights minimizes light pollution that contributes to urban skyglow. Switching to warmer-toned LED lights and compact warm fluorescent lighting can go a long way to improving your own sleep pattern. Blue light (that cold, white light none of us really like anyway) is the most impactful on human health and bird migration.
The following chart is courtesy of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. Consider using it the next time you purchase light bulbs; shoot for the lowest impact. Color temperatures are listed on lightbulb packages.
What else can you do? Simply turn your lights off at night.
Seriously. It’s that simple.
If you’re interested in learning more about the night sky, visit, Astronomers Without Borders and the Dark Skies Awareness page .