By Susan Johnson
While many people are embracing the green movement, one group is promoting another part of the spectrum — black of night. Specifically, they are trying to reduce the proliferance of artificial light in the outdoor night sky so that people — not just astronomers, but everyone else — can see the stars against the background of the night sky.
In fact, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Conservation Congress is promoting the idea that visible starlight is a valuable natural resource that ought to be restored and protected for today’s and future generations.
The Rock River Times obtained an interview with Audrey Fischer, president of the Chicago Astronomical Society, the oldest astronomical society in the Western Hemisphere, established in 1862. She told us that several notable people have been members, “like Edwin Hubble, who proved the expansion of the universe and that we have more than one galaxy. At the time, he had a disagreement with Albert Einstein,” said Fischer. “Einstein thought we had just one galaxy and did not believe in the expansion of the universe. Hubble was the first to prove it. In September, there will be a play about this disagreement and the history of the expansion of the universe called Creation’s Birthday. It was performed in 2012 at the Fermilab.”
TRRT: How did this project come about, and how does the IDNR fit in?
Audrey Fischer: “We are losing our starry night sky. That was the motivation for it. The National Park Service has done extensive studies, and they predict that by 2025, 90 percent of the people in the contiguous United States will not be able to see a starry night sky even once in their lifetime. That would be very sad. That is because of the exponential increase of light pollution. We can totally control this. We know how to reduce light pollution by using the proper type of light techniques. The idea is to get the word out to the general public about light pollution and how they can restore the starry night sky before it is taken away. We are very passionate about this.
“We tried to think of different events that were organized and were successful … Earth Day is one of these … it is a world-famous event which has gotten the word out about taking care of our planet. ‘Starry Night’ is a version of Earth Day. Last year was our very first time, and we got about 6,000 people who participated in it, but this was a small event in the U.S. and a few other countries. So, I contacted Governor Quinn’s office and asked if he would issue a proclamation for ‘Starry Night.’ They responded within one day. I got a phone call from the Governor’s Office, and they said, ‘Are you sure you just want one day? We can give you a whole week.’ They liked the name ‘Starlight Week.’ Now, we have an International Starry Night … [in] the middle of August during the Perseid Meteor Shower. The week after is Starlight Week. We are very happy about it. This year, I e-mailed them again and asked if the governor would consider doing it this year, and again they responded in one day and said yes. This year it is Saturday to Saturday, Aug. 9 through 16, 2014.”
TRRT: What steps should local groups take to participate in it?
Audrey Fischer: “The one common thing about amateur astronomers is that we will have to connect them with the cosmos and astronomy, and we do this quite often. We have little star parties that are free to the public. We will set up our telescopes at either a state park or forest preserve area. Some of these places are called star parks. They’ve gotten certified as a star park in the global star park network. There are a couple different organizations that actually are registered. There is Dark Sky Community and the International Dark Sky Association, which is about 27 years old. A lot of these astronomy clubs actually do a lot of events for outreach already, so we will just ask them to dedicate their events in August to Starlight Week. They can set up their telescopes and invite people to take a look or get scopes at night and show them the planets.”
Progress in the wrong direction?
One item of concern to the CAS is a plan for Chicago to become “The City of Lights.” It is serious enough that Fischer sent a letter to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pleading with him to take action to “dramatically reduce light pollution in Chicago” because of the profound health consequences. “More evidence shows light pollution is linked to increased risk of mental illness, even aggression and severe human disease,” she wrote. “Light pollution is killing people — through circadian disruption and interference with the body’s ability to produce melatonin — the brain’s signal to every cell, organ and tissue in our bodies triggering the light/dark timing mechanism — important for our health on so many levels. … Study after study consistently show evidence that circadian disruption from artificial light at night is the cause of exponential increase of death by cancers (breast, prostate, colon, pancreatic, bladder, lung, some lymphomas), heart disease and rise in mental illness, depression, aggression, sleep disorders, mood disorders, memory disorders, metabolic diseases including type 2 diabetes and obesity, and more. This is caused from various types of artificial light at night — both indoor and outdoor. An important campaign to educate the public is needed. Chicago must end the mandate that demands streetlights shine: ‘Streetlight to keyhole of the front door of residential homes.’”
She included three video links to reports by scientists and researchers as sources for these health issues. You may want to check these out: “Lights Out: Sleep is Still the Best Medicine” by Charles Hinshaw, www.youtube.com/watch?v=O115ZAOzO14; Russell Foster: “Why do we sleep?” (talk video), www.ted.com/talks/russell_foster_why_do_we_sleepTED; and “Circadian Rhythms and Mental Disorders” by Jin Yi, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcgFEDx9P80.
The Rock River Times asked Fischer about the Chicago program to increase light at night. She replied: “I hope that doesn’t happen because we are at a crossroads right now where money is being set aside for new lighting, which is the wrong lighting. Our city of Chicago can be up to five times brighter than it is right now. Some of that light even interferes with the bird migration patterns, and now there is evidence that it interferes with the Monarch butterflies. There are links to it that show it is connected with a circadian rhythm. One part of the system is located in the antennae, and it affects their compass system so the light pollution gets them disoriented and off the correct migration pathway. It’s a complicated issue, but this is one of the points.”
July 22, TRRT spoke with her again to get an update on Chicago’s “City of Lights” program. Fischer told us: “We are officially entering this competition to try to give alternative solutions to the light pollution. It’s going to be a big ordeal whether or not we get chosen. It’s hard to say. It’s a competition called ‘The Citywide Light Framework Plan.’ Our option will be ‘Chicago, City of Starlight.’ By choosing the right type of technology that is available now, we can provide the city with [a safer alternative]. Chicago can have very wonderful lighting for the safety and security and aesthetics, but also have starlight. So there’s a new technology that wasn’t available a decade ago or even five years ago that we can incorporate. We are really excited about the opportunity.”
TRRT: When would you know about the competition?
Audrey Fischer: “It’s a big procedure to go through, and phase 2 will be announced at the beginning of August. Wouldn’t it be nice during Starlight Week? That would be very appropriate … I’m very scared that if they go with what he’s [the mayor] talking about, they could make the light pollution 500 times worse than what it is now. Chicago is already the most light-polluted city on the planet, measured by satellite. There are certainly individual streets in the world that are brighter than Chicago streets, like the Vegas strip or Times Square. But when you look at the city as a whole, Chicago is a brighter city. The scary part is that now we have all the evidence how light pollution is linked to several health risks. It’s our obligation to figure out a way to reduce the light pollution over cities. …
“That’s what’s missing here, is the public awareness. Once the public learns about it, they will demand that they stop the light pollution. Human health is at stake right now, and the general public doesn’t realize it.”
For those in Rockford who would like to see some starlight, the observatory at Lockwood Park, 5201 Safford Road, is open on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. The Discovery Center Museum, 711 N. Main St., Rockford, also has a planetarium open to visitors.
From the July 30-Aug. 5, 2014, issue