The stars can still inspire us…even in light-polluted Chicago

I was moved by Scott Stantis’ full-page comic in the Chicago Tribune, “Growing Up Under a Starless Sky” (July 15, 2015) on the things big-city Chicago takes from its residents: “Innocence. Safety. Hope.” and a clear view of the starry night sky. As Stantis points out in his simple but poignant figures, we lose more to Chicago’s light pollution that just a pretty view: artificial night-time lighting has been linked to obesity, mood disorders, and heart disease. Light pollution, particularly Chicago’s brand of sodium vapor lights, washes out views of the Milky Way and the millions of stars that have inspired our ancestors for millennia.

Fortunately, not all is lost. Even in light-polluted locations like a Chicago, a child can still see the picture-perfect rings of Saturn, the lined-up moons of Jupiter, and the cheese-like surface of the Moon. She can split Mizar and Alcor — a double star — with a telescope and the note the differences in the colors of stars.

I co-founded #popscope, an urban astronomy program 18 months ago to bring people together in our cities’ public spaces to be awed and inspired by the universe. Part of our work at #popscope (www.popscope.org) is to counter the myth that astronomy is impossible from an urban location. It’s not. Since our founding, we’ve hosted dozens of public astronomy nights in Ottawa, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. that have given hundreds of urban residents to chance to see faraway planets and stars…often for the first time.

Organizations like the International Dark Association are working hard to protect our planet’s remaining “dark sky” locations and to encourage cities to replace inefficient and light-scattering sodium vapor street lights with LED-style bulbs that efficiently illuminate only what matters: the ground.

We don’t need to wait until orange alley lights get fixed, however, before we can start enjoying the night sky. It is a shame that a child in Chicago will never be inspired by the Milky Way. But what a bigger shame it would be if he didn’t know that Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, the Moon and more were waiting for him above the glowing orange haze of Chicagoland!

As we say at #popscope, “keep looking up!

— Michael (Originally Published 2015/10/07)

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