Far be it from me as a computational quantum chemist to complain about technology and expect people to pay attention, but I've begun to take a dim view of the bright idea of outdoor lighting.
8/14/2003: Some of you may remember the great Northeast Blackout of 2003. I was working in my basement studio apartment (ah, graduate school) at Hidden Valley Apartments listening to the Jim Reith Show on WSYR when the radio went out and the kitchen-half of my apartment went black while my living room side stayed powered (no, I have no idea who wired the apartment). While I remember losing days worth of calculations when my computer cluster powered down, I distinctly remember going to the Darling Hill Observatory in Tully for some clear sky observing. Having the power turned off over much of Syracuse (to the North) and Cortland (to the South) made for the best Central New York stargazing I've ever experienced. And then, within a few days, it was gone. The difference was so significant I imagined entire neighborhoods turning on every lamp within reach en masse to celebrate the power coming back on.
The text at the bottom of this post is from a letter crafted in largest part by the elegant hand of John McMahon (someone with a long history of fighting the good dark-sky fight) and sent on behalf of the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) to Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal and Senator Carl Marcellino in Albany, acknowledging the glowing support by the SAS for the passage of A7438/S4364: The Healthy, Safe And Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act. Our specific interest (dare I call it a "special interest") is in combating light pollution, that glow from cities and towns that effectively washes the sky at night and greatly diminishes our (yes, the society's, but everyone wanting to look up is increasingly taking a hit) view of the heavens above.
And who cares? One of the realizations that has come from burying myself in the hard sciences is that I am acutely cognizant of the fact that we are not here because of our political viewpoints, our cultural heritage, our religious upbringing, our feelings, or our academic background. We're here because fundamental particles coalesced into matter, because stars went nova and seeded the universe with clouds of heavy atoms that collapsed into solid objects like new stars and planets. If the valley of the Nile River is the cradle of civilization, then Earth is the cradle of the Nile River, and the spiral arm of the Milky Way where we reside is the cradle of the Earth, and all the way out to the edges of the universe. We're here because of what's out there and it's only recently that civilization has begun to ignore that realization.
The night sky is the intellectual cradle of religion, physics, calculus, agriculture, philosophy, and, by the fact that all the matter on Earth came from the cosmic matter "up there," the source of everything else. If we gave as much respect to the night sky as we do to television shows, sporting events, video games, and all those other things that keep us indoors the same way the constellations kept most people outside until only a few hundred years ago, we wouldn't have to be asking residents and businesses to please use a different type of lighting fixture, please turn off the light if you're not in the room, or please turn off some fraction of your parking lot lights after business hours, and we certainly wouldn't have to be trying to get legislation passed towards that end. Besides posting about it, I do my part by using low-Watt bulbs and by not having any lights on my second floor (of course, downtown Syracuse is sufficiently bright to not need them).
IMHO, It is good legislation. It's green-friendly, it saves money, it looks like you're being community-conscious when you use it in advertisements. I'll endeavor to frequent your establishment if you help cut light pollution and happily tell others to do the same. The Nice N' Easy in Tully has taken efforts to cut their light pollution and, accordingly, I make it my final pit stops before the observatory when I need something instead of stopping in Syracuse for the same. No joke. If you own a business, please consider implementing changes to your outdoors in line with the proposed legislation. If you're a NY resident, please consider sending a letter of support for A7438/S4364. And turn off those lights!
For more information on light pollution and legislation, I recommend visiting (and supporting) SELENE-NY and the International Dark Sky Organization. We also have a page (written by Dr. McMahon) at the SAS website.
Dear Assemblywoman Rosenthal and Senator Marcellino:
The members of the Syracuse Astronomical Society (SAS) strongly endorse A7438/S4364, the Healthy, Safe and Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act, which would regulate outdoor lighting in the State for the general benefit of its citizens.
Our starry night skies are one of our most precious natural resources, inspiring young and old alike to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. For over a half a century the SAS has reached out to the public here in Central New York to educate neighbors and visitors alike about the marvels of the heavens. Unfortunately, in recent years the view of the cosmos has become increasingly degraded by the misdirected and excessive glow of outdoor illumination.
For the members of our society who observe from their own backyards this problem has become especially troublesome because of general sky brightness and from excessive light from nearer sources that intrudes onto their private property. Likewise, for the SAS's Darling Hill Observatory (located in a semi-rural location on Vesper Hill in the Town of Tully) the sky glow from Syracuse to the north and, increasingly, from the Cortland area to our south has progressively affected our view of larger and larger portions of the sky.
Despite the recent forward looking actions of the Town of Tully in changing over its roadway lighting to full cutoff optics that reduce offensive and distracting glare, save energy, and reduce lighting costs by over 40%, without decisive action to stem the process of needlessly and destructively lighting up the night elsewhere, the light pollution problem will only worsen. It will continue to hamper our ability to bring the wonders of astronomy to others, to degrade the nocturnal environment, and to waste precious energy and taxpayer dollars.
The Healthy, Safe and Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act would begin the process of restoring the glories of the night sky to everyone and will help us to continue our educational mission. It will render other benefits to the general population as well.
Therefore, the Syracuse Astronomical Society formally urges all members of the New York State Legislature to act promptly and decisively to pass the Healthy, Safe and Energy Efficient Outdoor Lighting Act.
If the SAS and its membership can, in any way, be of service in emphasizing the importance of issues raised by A7438/S4364, please do not hesitate to contact myself at (315) 559-4737 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Damian G. Allis, Ph.D.
President, Syracuse Astronomical Society
cc: Senators Bruno, Valesky, DeFrancisco; Assemblymen Kolb, Silver; Governor Spitzer