light is heavy

This week’s NYer has a nice piece on light pollution that notes that just to see the normal night sky the way it was in Galileo’s time, you would have to go to the Australian outback, or the mountains of Peru. The Bortle scale defines 9 classes of visibility, to help us get a sense of what we ought to be able to see in the night sky. He has the milky way visible up through class 4 or 5, and even in the very worst class, “urban inner city”, he has about 30 stars visible, which is far more than one ever sees in new york (though perhaps if you know where to look there is more there than is obvious). It also explains why I see clouds at night now, and I never remember seeing that when I was a kid. I had been wondering why that was, and was imagining weird weather related reasons.

Ultimately, reading this makes it clear that most people who think they have seen the night sky have probably not seen anything remotely like what Galileo saw. It reminds me of a trip I took across country with a friend about 10 years ago. I had grown up in NYC, but we spent the summers in central Maine, in an old farmhouse without electricity or running water, in a very rural area where the only lights after sunset were campfires and kerosene lamps. My friend had grown up in rural Minnesota, and I had imagined she had the same access to nature, but she had lived in an area full of TVs and porchlights. SHe saw the stars at night, but when we traveled together, we somehow ended up in the middle of the desert or something at some point where we came upon a comparatively dark sky, and she pointed up to the Milky Way and looked at me, confused, to ask what it was. She had seen the stars every night, but never our galaxy. And if you have never seen it, you have no way to know what you are missing – you have no way to know what the night sky would look like without light pollution, or whether the spot you are in is a good one, if you have never seen something to compare it to.

What I remember about the stars in Maine is that looking up at that sky truly filled me with awe. I was fascinated by astronomy as a young teenager, and have always loved philosophy, and I really could imagine that being able to glimpse the sublimity and expanse of existence just by looking up fed this interest. I am always frustrated that my students cannot experience this directly. Kant famously stated that two things filled him with awe: “the starry night above, and the moral law within.” I feel like modern day students don’t take this seriously because the “starry night above” is just some dumb astrology or something – they simply cannot imagine why it would be important. We’ve distracted ourselves so completely with our own lights that the ancient lights of the universe itself are side notes. It feels like we’re missing something important.

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3 Responses to “light is heavy”

  1. Richard Gay Says:

    That was really nice, Miranda. It made me wish for the open ocean.

  2. Richard Gay Says:

    This is an odd coincidence. I use the Google thingy that lets me link from one new blog post to the next out of the blogs I subscribe to. The very next one after yours was this: http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/08/the-hitchhikers.html

  3. drinkme Says:

    nice. That was a lovely piece.

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