Monday, March 1, 2010

Vanishing Night

On a recent visit to the Nehru Planaterium in Bangalore when the projector was turned on to project the night sky on to the theatre dome, there was a loud appaluse from the audience. I then realised that probably most of the people in the theatre were seeing the night sky so rich with stars the very first time. A sad and shocking reminder to a silent phenomenon that is unfolding in the sky...Light pollution

When you look up at the night sky how many stars can you count? Few hundreds, may be? Where have all the stars gone? Where is that majestic Milky Way that used to form the ideal backdrop to the thousands of stars that used to adorn our night skies? As a child growing up in a remote Kerala town in Chittur, I could see thousands of stars in the night sky along with the Milky Way. In Bangalore living in the midst of light pollution, that number has dramatically reduced to a handfull of stars. I often feel pity for my kids who have never experienced the drama that nature unveils every night when the sun goes down. The amber glow that you see in the night sky is caused by the lights escaping into the sky. It is a collosal waste of energy not to speak of the environmental damage caused to generate this energy. It is a wastage that can be easily avoided by having more intelligent light fixtures that point light downwards completely so that it does not escape upwards. You could read more about it in Light pollution is a menace that is often ignored since it has no visible impact to our daily life. But studies show that our body needs darkness at night as much as it requires light during daytime, to maintain the circadian rhythm. Humans have the luxury of withdrawing to their homes at night and switching off and sleep in the comforts of darkness. What about animals? Do they have this luxury?

Amateur Astronomers in Bangalore these days travel 50 Km away from the city to get a dark sky for observation. This distance is likely to get longer due to uncontrolled urbanisation and thoughtless use of lights. Urbanisation is fast eliminating areas on this planet from which one can see dark skies. Soon a time will come when coming generations will lose this spectacle forever, unless we act now to reduce the light pollution. Our ancestors developed curiosity towards the universe by gazing at the night sky rich with stars. That gave birth to astronomers like Galileo, Coppernicus, Kepler, Hiparcus, etc. But a night sky devoid of stars will rob the coming generations off this curiosity.

Project Dark Skies is an effort to bring back the charm of unpolluted star filled skies back via a dedicated campaign for better use of lighting used in our day to day lives; efficient use of electricity and saving of electrical energy. Great Indian Star Count (GISC), a part of Project Dark Skies, is an opportunity for amateurs' astronomers to count stars seen in their local skies using pipes, to quantify light pollution. Be a part of this scientific study to quantify light pollution in India by counting stars at night at your place. You do not have to be an expert in knowing the night sky, as a lay person who does not have basic knowledge of skies, you can contribute to GISC by observing the sky with a hollow pipe as explained in the website:, and counting the visible stars. The results can be posted in the same website. If you are in fact familiar with the skies as an amateur astronomer, you can also contribute in a qualitative sense by observing certain sections of the sky more scientifically. This campaign runs from 2-17 March 2010. A similar world wide campaign called Globe At Night ( being iniated around this time.
It requires a collective effort from individuals, government and private organizations to bring in a change. Light pollution notwithstanding, excessive light induces heavy energy consumption and contributes to the global warming due to the direct heat generated by the lights and the energy consumption.

So as individuals how can one contribute? One could start from one's homes to ensure the lights within and outside the home is not escaping upwards. The best form of lighting is the one that is pointed downwards with sufficient covering at the top to prevent it from shotting out to the sky. Switch of all unwanted lights and use light thoughtfully without compromising security you deserve. BBMP had recently announced that they will switch off all lights on the hoardings after 8pm. This is a very welcome move. Educate your children and make them aware of what they are missing, because they stand to benefit most from this.
Help bring back the stars in the nightsky! May darker skies prevail!!

This blog was later published as a news item in Deccan Herald on 12 March 2010:

PS: "Vanishing Night" is a term that I borrowed from an article on light pollution published in National Geographic magazine: