Moving to the dark side
ASTRONOMY IS A FOUNDATION of science. The desire to understand the skies was common to every ancient civilisation, from Mesopotamia to our own, as seen at the magnificent Newgrange.
Astronomy informed much of the mythmaking and storytelling that are the basis of our oral and written cultures. Yet the sense of wonder generated by the stars has largely been lost on present generations. The advent of mass artificial lighting in the early part of the 20th century has made our streets safer but obliterated the night skies for most of us.
The majority of street lighting diffuses the light not only downwards to the pavement but also upwards. The effect of thousands of street lights is to create the familiar orange “skyglow” that hangs like a luminous fog over our towns and cities. Misdirected light not only destroys the view for astronomers but also leads to huge wastage of energy and is unnecessary, given modern design options.
Most urbanites cannot see the Milky Way, the wondrous band of stars that is visible directly overhead in the summer sky. Nor can they see Andromeda, our nearest neighbouring galaxy and the farthest object from us visible to the naked eye.
A survey in the UK last year illustrated how completely the night sky has disappeared for most people. In winter the magnificent constellation of Orion burns through the worst light pollution. In a dark sky one should be able to see 30 stars within its boundaries. Only 2 per cent of people in the UK could see 30 stars.
One place that is bucking the trend is Galloway Forest Park, in Dumfries and Galloway, in the southwestern corner of Scotland.
Motorists who take the ferry from Larne to Cairnryan (it used to be Stranraer) frequently skirt the edges of the park on the way to somewhere else, but if you are not in a hurry and the skies are due to be clear it is worth spending at least a night.
In 2009 the forest park was the first place in Europe to be designated a dark-skies park by the International Dark Skies Association, an organisation set up in the United States to highlight the problems of light pollution and to attempt to preserve the night sky where possible.
When we visited earlier this year the skies, luckily, were clear on a couple of nights; unluckily, there was also a full moon. With no light pollution to counter its effects, it bathed the whole area in a blue brilliant enough to read a newspaper by.