From Starlight to Electric Light

“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.” Bill Watterson

Every night, as I wait for my puppy to start doing his business, I strain my eyes to see stars and constellations I know are there, but cannot see. The fact that the hidden stars even have names means that the sky did not always look the way it does now. The increasing use of electric lights creates a type of pollution (albeit an easily reversible kind) called light pollution. It occurs when light shines up towards the sky and reflects back, obscuring our view of the stars and planets.

Long before settlers came to Tampa, Native peoples looked to the sky for navigational, spiritual, and calendrical purposes. This sky would have been visible until electric lights began to be used in the early 1900s. The only differences would be in the location of the stars (discussed in my last blog) and the effects of pollution or lack thereof on the atmosphere. During historic times, the bakeries and cigar factories of early Tampa and Ybor City created smog that would have limited visibility somewhat, but not significantly. In other places like Pittsburgh at the height of early 20th century industry, however, smog in the atmosphere was thick enough to dim the sun!

With much smaller populations and no smog producing activities, the Native Americans did not have this problem. The sky they saw was only ever obstructed by clouds. But these people were free to use the stars as a map, calendar, or storybook. It is difficult to say because without written records this type of information tends to get lost, we do know, however, that the sky would have been one of the few things visible to them at night. These same bright stars would have had some sort of importance, maybe more than what we place on them today.

In 1087 the stars would have been in slightly different positions and very bright.

In 1087 the stars would have been in slightly different positions and very bright.

Tampa first experienced electric light during a demonstration on April 28, 1887. The Tampa Journal noted, “The amazed throng could hardly believe that the stygian darkness could be dispelled so miraculously by current coming through a wire.” Still, it took some time for people to trust electric lights in their homes, fearing they were dangerous. At the time, electric lights were unfamiliar and must have seemed impossible. The electric current dancing between wires certainly would have been intimidating. Soon enough, however, the technology advanced and became the norm.

Even in 1887 there would not have been much light pollution, since most people used oil lamps.

Even in 1887 there would not have been much light pollution, since most people used oil lamps.

During the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, interest in the sky and beyond heightened. The idea of a man on the moon caused people to look up, and they soon realized that there was a lot out there. The idea of leaving our planet and exploring the unknown captured the imagination of American culture. The development of NASA made people curious, and the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral brought a lot of that curiosity and industry to Florida. The fascination with space carried to the 1980s with Carl Sagan’s television show Cosmos. He made grand scientific ideas tangible to and more easily understood by the general audience. Soon, however, NASA’s missions lessened and people’s interest shifted elsewhere.

Today, there is so much light that in many places only the brightest stars are visible. The city sky is practically useless for navigation, education, or telling stories. The map below shows how the major cities affect what the entire state can see at night. Places that are red or gray can barely see the Milky Way on a perfect night. It may not seem like much, but these are the areas where most people live.

 

This map shows night sky viewing conditions in Florida. Gray and red areas have the most light pollution, blue areas have the least.

This map shows night sky viewing conditions in Florida. Gray and red areas have the most light pollution, blue areas have the least.

Our sky in 2016 thanks to light pollution. No, that’s not the sun on the horizon; it is the light from cities obscuring the stars.

Our sky in 2016 thanks to light pollution. No, that’s not the sun on the horizon; it is the light from cities obscuring the stars.

 

Interest in our night sky has diminished since the 1980s. If the trend continues, we will lose an aspect of our culture that used to be critical to survival. Luckily, people seem to be gaining interest again. Scientists like Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, show people that science can be fun and accessible. Dr. Tyson has even brought back the Cosmos show on the National Geographic Channel. Locally, the St. Pete Astronomy Club has a star party around the time of most new moons (the moon is surprisingly bright when you’re trying to find distant galaxies with a telescope) at Withlacoochee County Park, (for more information http://www.stpeteastronomyclub.org/).

Light pollution images made using Stellarium (stellarium.org)

 

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