The Night Sky
In her column in Parade Magazine, a writer named Marilyn vos Savant made a list of “Questions too Funny to Answer.” Some of the questions were truly funny, belying people’s mis-understanding of science. Sad, in a way.
But, the saddest question, one that I didn’t find to be funny at all (and I’m surprised she listed it as “funny) was this: “Where did all the stars go? In the ’50s, the sky was loaded with them.”
It really isn’t even a dumb question. It’s a query that reflects a changed perception of the sky: we’re not seeing as many stars as we used to. Back in the ’50s we didn’t have much light pollution as we do now. Populations were somewhat smaller, and we were scattered more. Less light pollution per square meter, you might say.
Today, we light the night sky up with photonic pollution that tells the universe, “Look here! These people have money to burn!” Because, of course, when we light the night sky unnecessarily, we’re wasting money. And harming the environment in more ways than one.
If you ever have a chance to be in a truly dark-sky site, you’d see why I label the night sky as one of the seven wonders of the universe. To quote David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey,, “My god, it’s full of stars!”
And that gorgeous scattering of distant starlight is what set our minds wondering throughout the centuries. They caused us to wonder about what they were, how they got there, what makes them shine, and what will happen to them in the future. The science of astronomy, followed by astrophysics, augmented by physics, planetary science, atmospheric physics, and so many others, flowed from our wonder about the night sky.