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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Confessions of a dark-sky skeptic

Planning Commission Chair Ruth Platner demonstrates
Parshields at the March 12 Town Council meeting.

I have a confession to make. I’ve never really taken the whole concept of the “dark sky ordinance” seriously. As a recent Westerly Sun editorial put it, “Charlestown is fortunate to have such an issue to address.” With all the very real and pressing pollution problems we face—air pollution, water pollution, potential nuclear hazards—I just can’t work up much energy to combat “light pollution.” To my mind, light is simply not a pollutant. It’s not waste matter like typical pollutants; it’s essential to all life on Earth. Light pollution doesn’t require cleanup or remediation like other forms of pollution and doesn’t persist in the environment. All you have to do to stop “polluting” with light is to turn the lights off.

Though as a number of speakers made clear at the public hearing on the lighting ordinance at the March 12 Town Council Meeting, dark skies are not the only reason for the ordinance, the fixations of the Planning Commissioners notwithstanding. Excessive or intrusive lighting can be bothersome to other people. Former Planning Commissioner Dr. Lew Johnson put together an informative presentation detailing several instances of objectionable lighting he’s witnessed in his neighborhood and set up a live demonstration of dark-sky-compliant and noncompliant lighting (which Council President Tom Gentz treated as a joke, for which he should be ashamed).
If Gentz wanted to compare Dr. Lew Johnson to a game-show
host, he surely could've come up with a better example than
Vanna White. Dr. Johnson wasn't even wearing a dress.

As it happens, I have a friend who’s an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so I figured if a major astrophysical observatory can operate there in Cambridge, a city in its own right located just across the river from the largest city in New England, how much of a problem could we really have here in Charlestown?

I asked him, you’re an astronomer, what are you doing in a big city instead of out in Montana—which after all isn’t called Big Sky Country for nothing—or up on a mountain where you can see the stars?
He told me he likes Cambridge better, and besides, the real telescopes are located in Arizona, Hawaii, and earth orbit, and via computer, he has access to them all; there’s no need to go to them.

Meanwhile, the lighting ordinance kept showing up again and again on meeting agendas like a bad penny, and somewhere along the way, a ban on sodium-vapor lighting got added in. This made no sense to me, because I knew from my reading on the subject that while it’s true that photographers and cinematographers generally loathe sodium-vapor lighting for its sickly yellowish color, astronomers prefer low-pressure sodium-vapor lighting to mercury-vapor lighting because the color spectrum of sodium is narrow, making it easy to filter out. Yet Planning Commissar Ruth Platner insisted at the March 1 Planning Commission meeting that the astronomers at Frosty Drew had told her that sodium-vapor lighting was bad, very bad.

So once again, I asked my friend the astrophysicist, who confirmed that indeed, professional astronomers prefer sodium-vapor lighting over mercury, though LEDs are best of all because they can be precisely tuned to specific colors and wavelengths. LEDs, however, are more expensive. So banning sodium-vapor lighting could have the unintended consequence of making people switch back to mercury, which is less energy-efficient and even worse for astronomy.

Don’t get me wrong: I love stars. I have a painting of the “Pillars of Creation” (see image at left), a formation in the Eagle Nebula, which was painted from a Hubble image, hanging in my living room. It’s one of my most prized possessions. If my entire house burned to the ground tomorrow, it’s one of the only things I’d miss and could not replace.

But here’s the thing: The Planning Commission’s stated intention in passing the lighting ordinance is that it is somehow going to convince neighboring communities to turn down their lights for the sake of Frosty Drew. Indeed, at the March 12 council meeting, Gentz explicitly told Janice Falcone that no one would enforce the lighting ordinance on the General Stanton Inn. But why would Westerly or South Kingstown tell their businesses and homes to turn their lights down so Charlestown gets better sky views?

So yeah, it’s nice having the Frosty Drew observatory there in Ninigret, and educational and all for the kids, and of course it’s really cool to be able to view periodic astronomical phenomena like meteor showers and juxtapositions of astronomical objects. But hell, I can click my way over to the NASA website right now and probably spend the rest of my life viewing images from Hubble and our various satellites and space probes without ever seeing them all. And when I consider the many far more serious difficulties we face as a society—struggling families, war in Afghanistan, the ongoing assaults on women’s rights to their own bodily integrity, fundamental justice—there’s only so much Ruth and her minions can yank my chains about “protecting” Frosty Drew, which, after all, is a guest in Ninigret Park and was built to serve the park, not the other way around.