We’re Losing Our Skies and our Inspiration

and our Future Scientists

I got to go out and see the Perseids last night into the wee hours this morning.  We saw about 100 meteor flashes and flares in the sky suring the 2.5 hours we were out there gazing up at the starry sky.  Not only were the flashes spectacular in many instances, but I just found the whole experience of staring at the stars to be inspirational and touching.  I wonder how many other people got to do the same thing?  I hope a lot of you did, but knowing how the weather has been in some places, and the great amount of light pollution that a LOT of people have to contend with, it’s a sure bet that a lot of people didn’t get to look up.

Let’s talk about that light pollution for a little bit.  Below is a map of the region where I  live.  You don’t need an advanced degree in physics or rocket science to see that light pollution is oozing across the landscape like a disease. I’m on the edge of a yellow zone, meaning I have some sky glow to my east.  People in the red and yellow are inundated with unnecessary light. It’s robbing them of the stars, affecting their health, and costing them a LOT of money to light up the sky.  That’s money that could be better spent on other things — but humans seem to insist on lighting up space to show that we have money to burn.  I don’t get it.

The ooze of light pollution over Colorado. Courtesy Dark Sky Finder.

Now, look at the next map. It’s a light pollution map on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Specifically, it’s centered on Arlington, Virginia.  You will see pretty quickly that people living near the seat of power in this country also have brightly lit skies. The white areas mean an almost whited-out sky.  A view of the stars is pretty rare out there — I’ve been there, and sometimes we were lucky to see the brightest ones. You can imagine what growing up in such a star-less environment does for people who might be interested in the science of astronomy.  Not much.

Light pollution oozing over the Virginia area in the Eastern U.S. Courtesy Dark Sky Finder.

Do we need all this light?  Are we such a wealthy species that we have fed and clothed everybody, that everybody has a great place to live with fresh water and abundant educational opportunities that we can NOW afford to burn oil and electricity to send megawatts of light energy to space?  I think you know the answer to that.

Can we learn a way to harness that light and direct it to WHERE it’s needed and away from the skies?

Of course we can.  It is a matter of using light properly — and efficiently to guarantee our safety at the same time we save money and the environment.

This is something that the International Dark-Sky Association is dedicated to teaching about.  Not only can cities and towns — and yes, even individuals — save money by using proper lighting, but we can make a stab at getting our skies back.  All of us need those skies — for inspiration, sure — and for science — but also for our health.  Check out IDA to find out why.  You might be inspired to take action.  If you’d like to see what the light pollution levels are at your place, check out the Dark Sky Finder page. It will amaze you at how much light is “oozing” out across the landscape and skies in YOUR area.

So, speaking of inspiration, I mentioned above that watching the skies last night and this morning was inspirational.  I got my start in astronomy as a kid because I COULD go out and watch the sky — and wonder about those pinpoints of light and the vastness of space.  It’s a heritage that we all deserve. But, some kids aren’t getting that heritage anymore.  This is, in fact, why I chose the Arlington, Virginia area as an example.

The David Brown Planetarium is threatened with closure -- denying students in light-polluted Arlington, VA, the inspiration of a starry sky.

It’s in the center of a huge area of light pollution.  Worse, the school administration in that area is threatening to close the Brown Planetarium — a center of excellence in science education, particularly in astronomy. This is a place that has been an inspiration to students who can’t study the stars from their backyards — a place that encourages students to study science with an eye toward helping them understand more about their world and the cosmos. Yet, for reasons that are vaguely stated about “saving money”, this place is being threatened with closure because administrators don’t seem to think that the inspirational aspect of a science education is important.  The planetarium has been reduced to begging for money on a Facebook page.

In addition to being inspired by the real stars when I was a kid, I had that inspiration rekindled when I visited the nearby planetarium facilities.  I ended up working in one for a while before going back to study astronomy in college.  But, while at the planetarium, I learned a valuable lesson:  our mentor, the late Jim Sharp, inculcated in us that the planetarium is a medium of inspiration… and of course, it needs to be said again and again that inspiration often is a powerful motivator of education, as well. Closing planetariums in order to hire more adminstrators or teach to tests is cutting off the inspiration that feeds education for a short term gain. In the long term, school districts that omit inspiration (and music and art) are only feeding their own future failures. And have no one to blame but themselves.

This sort of thing inspires me to ask just what the heck the administrators of that district are spending taxpayer dollars on — if not for education, and science education in particular.  Perhaps they only see “teaching to the test” as “education”… but generations of us who grew up KNOWING that science can be fun and inspirational know better.  We were inspired by the sky — and our visits to planetariums. We helped expand NASA and science outreach and science education as we grew up. In my work over the years, I’ve talked to countless astronauts, scientists, engineers, and even doctors, who cited their interest in astronomy and visits to the planetarium as one of the factors that influenced them to stay with science and contribute to our country’s scientific advances.

So, why are watching a new generation of administrators, bowing to ignorance and political pressure, shutting down planetariums and science centers (and music and art programs) to “save money”?  (Interestingly, they always seem to find enough money to hire more administrators, send administrators on boondoggle trips, fund sports programs that don’t exactly lend themselves to education, and so on).  Why do we have a generation of leaders in Washington, D.C. who don’t seem to “get” that science and inspiration go hand in hand?

Where’s the inspiration in a closed planetarium?  In teaching to the test? In closing programs that actually HELP students learn?  We’re losing our stars in the sky — is this why administrators in Arlington are now actively working to shut down the stars on a dome?  Not very inspirational, is it?

We are facing a huge gap of science-literate people in the United States. Every day I read comments online from people who don’t have a clue about basic science principles — and who demonstrate just why our educational system needs MORE science teachers and science inspiration, not less.  We have just heard today about pathways for astronomy and astrophysics exploration in the next decade. Yet, I wonder who’s going to do that work?  Who are the people who will be the doctors and physicists and trained technical people that we as a society need to help us advance?  If we keep closing off avenues for science education and inspiration, where are our future leaders going to learn these things? Will we even have home-grown science and technology experts?  Good questions.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it in his closing remarks about the 2010 Decadal Survey in Astronomy and Astrophysics this morning, “Who are we to complain later that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are not being populated?”

We can’t, if we keep closing the avenues of inspiration  — access to our skies, NASA, our museums, and our planetariums — that feed our future scientists.


  1. Curtis Croulet

    I participate as a volunteer at Palomar Observatory, giving tours. Something I’ve discovered is that most people don’t even know that the Sun and stars rise in the east and set in the west. How can someone graduate from high school not knowing this? What the @#$% are they teaching, anyway? The funniest answer, when I asked a group where the stars rise, was from a teenager who asked back, “In California?”

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