By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer
A 2016 study found nearly 80% of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way in the night sky. A better study would ask how many of those people know what they’re missing.
Or, at least that’s the question that came to mind as I lay on a pool chair and stared up at a sparkling night sky for the first time in what seemed like forever, courtesy of a blackout at my apartment not a mile down the road from Baylor’s campus. Staring up at the beautiful sight of a sparkling night sky, my sense of wonder soon turned to frustration. Even with only the minimal backup lights aglow at the complex, it wasn’t enough. Not only is a clear view of the night sky increasingly hard to find, but the light pollution from Waco was still far too bright to see the spiral arms of our home galaxy.
The night sky holds a special if under appreciated place in human history. For thousands of years the stars guided travelers over land and sea. Ancient civilizations found patterns in the stars, with some such as the Greeks interweaving these constellations with their mythology. Even today the future of human exploration lies, not on the ground or in the sky, but beyond. After decades of relative stagnation, NASA is finally planning manned missions beyond the orbit of our own planet, and groundbreaking discoveries like the first real image of a black hole show the wonders that await us when we look beyond the spinning pebble we call home.
Twenty-first century technology provides the means to probe deeper into the universe, but it’s also made many of our traditional connections to the night sky obsolete. When Waze can take us to our precise destination, (or Apple Maps the vague vicinity of it) why would anyone but the most intrepid or desperate look to the stars for guidance?
And for those who let their gaze wander upward regardless, the moon and a smattering of the brightest stars are the only natural objects on display amidst a muddled mess of light pollution. Stadium lights, street lamps and those godforsaken LED high-beams found on every lifted truck in the state all contribute to washing out the sky. It’s a similar concept to turning on a light in the car while driving at night, but without a parent in the front seat to tell you to switch it off.
Scientific research isn’t immune to the problem of light pollution, either. The high-powered telescopes used by astronomers must be built far from populated areas to achieve a clear view. Stargazing is harder than ever, and it’s shocking that more attention isn’t given to how we are being deprived of one of the most basic human experiences.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I loved learning about planets, nebulae and black holes. I loved watching space documentaries and I loved picking out the constellations. This dream died sometime around middle school when I realized how much I hate doing math, but my interest never completely vanished. I think this speaks to the power the universe has to inspire, and the night sky is our window to it.
If nothing else, seeing hundreds of stars in the sky, each of which are light years away and may have their own planets, puts the Earth’s minuscule scale in perspective.
The problem of light pollution isn’t going away anytime soon, which makes it more important than ever that we appreciate the beauty of the night sky when given the chance. We take our window to the universe for granted, the least we can do is take the chance to peer around the glowing curtains which obscure our view.