Our founding fathers didn't talk to one another on a smart phone or even on one of those phones they used to crank up. They didn't carpool to Independence Hall. They weren't entertained by radios, TVs, or movies. Why, they didn't even have indoor plumbing. Or houses wired for electricity. Their nights were pitch-dark, except for the candlelight or---if they lived long enough---the gas lamps that came later. . But they still had the stars!
One of the Tribune's weekend "Remarkable Women" wants to go back to those days. Not for the tricorn hats, or the wooden teeth, or the long list of Colonial artifacts that are antiques nowadays. She wants to do a Back-to-the Future for the stars! Audrey Fisher is obsessed with dimming the citylights. "To reduce light pollution and put the stars back into the city."
The goal of her organization, One Star at a Time, is to unite humankind "via the starry sky". She says that across the globe we share the same heavens. "Starlight is the path to closer understanding of our universe, each other and ourselves---and maybe it's even a path toward peace."
Does that sound Polly-Anna to you?. But she might be on to something.
I've been an urbanite my entire life. But on those few infrequent trips to the country, I was always swept away when I looked up at the night sky. I regreted that I knew so little about those thousand points of light and the constellations they were in. And so many were visible to the naked eye. I remember a classmate of mine in high school who was what would be called a geek today. His passion was astronomy. Once I went over to his place and saw his telescope and the star charts and the posters on his room walls. He understood better than I at the time the majesty and glory of the starry night.
As coincidence would have it, when I came across Audrey Fischer, I was reading a book of essays ("Death by Black Hole") by the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson might be considered the heir apparent to Carl Sagan as the No. 1 astronomer in pop culture. He is a fascinating read. Listen to what Tyson writes in his essay "Let There Be Dark".
"Under light-polluted skies, fuzzy objects such as comets, nebulae, and galaxies become difficult or impossible to detect. I have never in my life seen the Milky Way galaxy from within the limits of New York City, and I was born and raised here. If you observe the night sky from light-drenched Times Square, you might see a dozen or so stars, compared with the thousands that were visible when Peter Stuyvesant was hobbling around town. No wonder ancient peoples shared a culture of sky lore, whereas modern peoples, who know nothing of the night sky, instead share a culture of evening TV."
Tyson, like Fischer, wants us to shield our streetlights, so that the astronomical amount of wasted light doesn't flood the night sky and obscure our view of the myriad of heavenly bodies. Just think. If our streetlights were indeed shielded, we'd be able to see Audrey Fischer's favorite stars tonight: Dubhe and Merak, the two stars in the Big Dipper that point to the North Star. Audrey says "their initials stand for dad and mom, who were my guiding stars my whole life."
And, by the way, lest you think---as many of us do---that the North Star (Polaris) is the brightest star in the nighttime sky, Neil deGrasse Tyson would say, 'Sorry to disillusion you. Dad and Mom are much brighter!'