What We Gain From Dark Night Skies
REGINA BARBER, HOST:
You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
Do you remember that first time when you did see a clear, dark night sky?
CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Yeah, I think the first time was when Comet Hyakutake came through and was visible from Southern California.
BARBER: This is Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. She teaches physics at the University of New Hampshire and is the author of "The Disordered Cosmos." And the night sky has been important to her since childhood.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I don't know how she, like, found the time and money to do this, but my mom drove us out to Joshua Tree and got her hands on some binoculars so that we could look at it. And so I think I must have been 14 or 15, yeah. And so that was my first time being like, oh, so we go out to the desert and there are all of these things that are visible.
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BARBER: Chanda grew up in East LA, where her view of the night sky was usually obscured by light pollution and smog.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: It was either later that year or the following year. I went on a camping trip in Giant Sequoia with my dad and my stepmother and my sister. And my dad and I were looking up at the sky one night, and I was like, what's all of that white stuff? And he said, have you never seen the Milky Way before? And I just, like - I had no idea that you could actually see the Milky Way without a telescope. I had no idea at all.
BARBER: And looking up to the cosmos gave Chanda even more questions - deeper ones.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Who am I? What am I doing here? What are we doing here? What does it mean for life to exist?
BARBER: She pursued those questions all the way to a career in theoretical physics and astronomy.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: The next time I was really under a dark night sky, I had a Ph.D. in physics and I was on an observing run with Paul Schechter, a very distinguished astronomer, and we were at La Serena in the Chilean desert.
BARBER: Oh, I'm jealous (laughter).
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: We were at, you know, the twin Magellan Telescopes, and he was giving me a tour of all of the facilities. And at some point, you know, we just walked out onto some steps, and we were looking at the sky. And I was like, wait a minute. This is what my ancestors saw. I am almost 30, and it's my first time seeing a night sky like this.
BARBER: Yeah. I mean, I'm an astronomer. I still haven't seen a night sky like that, you know? Like...
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Right, right. In a time when there wasn't electricity, people were often seeing night skies. Even if there were, like, fires or some other form of illumination around, they were getting these regular views of the Milky Way, that they were seeing lots of stuff in the sky. And that that is just an experience that a lot of us who grew up in an urban environment and maybe, you know, didn't have the opportunity to go camping - although, I'm going to be frank, I still hate camping. Don't want to do it again.
BARBER: Yeah, I don't like camping either, really (laughter).
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I really, like, just - I...
BARBER: I try.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: Put me in a real bed. I'm good. But, you know, not having the resources to do that, a lot of people are actually being denied this experience that really is part of our ancestral heritage. And that was the thing that clicked for me that night, that this was part of every single human being's ancestral heritage.
BARBER: But now, for many of us, seeing stars in the sky is challenging. Today on the show, we ask, can a city and a dark night sky coexist? I'm Regina Barber, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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BARBER: One cold night earlier this month, we sent our intern Katie Sypher to northern Arizona in search of a place where a city coexists with the dark night sky.
KATIE SYPHER, BYLINE: Hi. Are you Danielle?
DANIELLE ADAMS: I am, yes.
SYPHER: Hi. Nice to meet you.
ADAMS: Wonderful. Good to meet you, too.
BARBER: There, she met up with Dr. Danielle Adams. Danielle's a board member of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition and a cultural astronomer at Lowell Observatory, which is where Pluto was discovered - RIP. The observatory sits up on a hill near Flagstaff, Ariz., at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet - ideal for stargazing.
ADAMS: Lowell Observatory is a mile from downtown Flagstaff. This is a city of 75,000 people.
BARBER: And that means a lot of artificial light. But in 2001, Flagstaff officially became the world's first dark sky city. That's a designation for communities that have successfully minimized light pollution so people can see more of the stars. Other cities have followed suit, like Ketchum, Idaho, Julian, Calif., and even some cities in Germany, Japan and Scotland. So heavily bundled in hats and winter coats, Danielle took Katie on a tour to look at the stars.
ADAMS: So now I want to take you over here to this overlook. Orion is up there high. You can see the belt. The belt points to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Just gorgeous things in the sky right now. And then you put the Milky Way in with that, and it's just an astounding, astounding sight. So...
BARBER: The effort to preserve and protect dark skies in cities like Flagstaff, as well as in parks and other places around the world, is often called the dark-sky movement.
ADAMS: The dark-sky movement is really about preserving dark skies where they currently exist.
BARBER: Like in more rural areas. And for folks like Danielle, the hope is also to restore dark skies to brightly lit communities everywhere.
ADAMS: And that can be achieved in really simple ways.
BARBER: Looking over Flagstaff at night, visitors will notice a few things that look different from a typical lit-up city.
ADAMS: You don't see light bulbs, more or less. You see traffic signals. You see, of course, the car headlights and the car taillights. That is because one of the rules we have is that light should be shielded. You want your light going down onto the street or the sidewalk. You don't want it going up into the sky.
BARBER: Another thing that's different is the color of the lights.
ADAMS: You don't see white lights except for the car headlights. All of kind of the housing lights and the commercial lights - it's amber in color. The reason is that in the spectrum of light, lights that go towards the red end of the spectrum, they won't scatter into the sky and contribute to light pollution nearly as much.
BARBER: That's also good for our eyes. Our night vision isn't as disrupted by red or amber lights.
ADAMS: And so if you're in downtown Flagstaff, you can be even close to a street light. But because it's amber, you can look right past that streetlight and see the Milky Way.
BARBER: A 2016 atlas of sky brightness found that in North America, nearly 80% of us live in a place where we can't see the Milky Way. And research says that all that light pollution is bad for wildlife. Migrating birds that fly through the night can get distracted by bright city lights. Hatching sea turtles can mistake a city's nighttime glow for the reflection of the moon and stars on the ocean. Light pollution is also bad for our health.
ADAMS: Artificial lights, of course, let us work all night long or play all night long. But having those bright white or blue lights negatively impacts the natural rhythms that our body's trying to communicate to us.
BARBER: Our body's natural rhythms tell us when it's time to go to sleep, and research has found that exposure to light pollution can disrupt that process.
ADAMS: And so if you're looking at your phone or if you're in a city at night where there isn't a dark sky and you've got bright billboards and light displays and signs everywhere, you're not seeing darkness. And so your body thinks it should be staying awake when actually you should be going to sleep.
BARBER: The last thing Flagstaff controls is how much light shines into the night sky, and it really is noticeable driving around Flagstaff. Gas stations, grocery store parking lots, even the large university campus - many of them aren't as bright as most of us are used to.
ADAMS: All of these combine to make what you see there, as a dark sky city.
BARBER: These days, Danielle says travelers who fly into the Flagstaff airport need only look up to see a spectacular view of the Milky Way.
ADAMS: And then when they see it, they're - they gasp. They're like, whoa, wait, that - really? That's (laughter) - and they're amazed. They've never seen that before in the sky. It's just incredible. Sometimes they're brought to tears because it's just so beautiful.
BARBER: At the beginning of the pandemic, Chanda got to experience that wonder with her husband. One night, they made the drive back to Joshua Tree out in the Southern California desert.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: I had the experience of pointing things out to my husband and explaining to him what he was looking at. And I think he was awestruck, right? And that's part of what was happening for me that first time in Chile...
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...Was I was having that experience of being like, this is the universe and really appreciating, like, that moment. The film "Contact," where Jodie Foster's character - she's like, we are so small...
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: ...And so insignificant and also so precious, because the universe is, like, so big and there are so many other things happening. And we are just, like, a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what's happening.
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BARBER: That reminder of how beautifully small and insignificant humankind is, the wonder that drives our curiosity about the universe - it disappears with the stars.
ADAMS: You miss the wonder. You don't even look up because, you know, there's not much up there.
BARBER: And wonder, she says, feeds curiosity.
ADAMS: And curiosity, if you follow it, leads to inquiry and investigation. You start asking questions, and you learn about the universe. And then if you follow that path, then that leads you to this point of understanding.
BARBER: Chanda's also aware that not everyone gets to experience the awe of a dark night sky.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: How do you really sit and wonder and have even really a moment of peace when there are so many things that are distracting us or literally acting as physical barriers?
BARBER: Watching the night sky - it can't be summed up with just a physical experience.
PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: You know, we can talk about it as a spiritual benefit, which speaks to our psychological well-being. And we know that our psychological well-being and our physical well-being are in conversation with each other, particularly for those of us who are people of color and Black and Indigenous people - that there is this element of dealing with genocide. Many of us will never know what our ancestors' cultures were, what their languages were.
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PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN: But the thing that we can know is that the night sky was part of their lives.
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BARBER: Today's episode was edited by Stephanie O'Neill, fact-checked by Katherine Sypher and produced by Katherine Sypher and Rebecca Ramirez, with help from Chloee Weiner. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Andrea Kissack runs the science desk. Edith Chapin is the executive editor and vice president of news, and Nancy Barnes is our senior vice president of news. I'm Regina Barber. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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