1800-present: From candles and rushlights to Scottish night-sky therapy

Cairngorm Night by rg250871.Cairngorm Night‘ uploaded to flickr by rg250871

From National Geographic magazine –

For most of human history, the phrase “light pollution” would have made no sense. Imagine walking toward London on a moonlit night around 1800, when it was Earth’s most populous city. Nearly a million people lived there, making do, as they always had, with candles and rushlights and torches and lanterns. Only a few houses were lit by gas, and there would be no public gaslights in the streets or squares for another seven years. From a few miles away, you would have been as likely to smell London as to see its dim collective glow.

Now most of humanity lives under intersecting domes of reflected, refracted light, of scattering rays from overlit cities and suburbs, from light-flooded highways and factories. […]

In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction. We’ve grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night—dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth—is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost. And yet above the city’s pale ceiling lies the rest of the universe, utterly undiminished by the light we waste—a bright shoal of stars and planets and galaxies, shining in seemingly infinite darkness.

We’ve lit up the night as if it were an unoccupied country, when nothing could be further from the truth. Among mammals alone, the number of nocturnal species is astonishing. Light is a powerful biological force, and on many species it acts as a magnet […].

[…We] may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives—one of our circadian rhythms—is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.For the past century or so, we’ve been performing an open-ended experiment on ourselves, extending the day, shortening the night, and short-circuiting the human body’s sensitive response to light. The consequences of our bright new world are more readily perceptible in less adaptable creatures living in the peripheral glow of our prosperity. But for humans, too, light pollution may take a biological toll. At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.

In the end, humans are no less trapped by light pollution than the frogs in a pond near a brightly lit highway. Living in a glare of our own making, we have cut ourselves off from our evolutionary and cultural patrimony—the light of the stars and the rhythms of day and night. In a very real sense, light pollution causes us to lose sight of our true place in the universe, to forget the scale of our being, which is best measured against the dimensions of a deep night with the Milky Way—the edge of our galaxy—arching overhead.

In this light, the following news, that Scotland’s tourism agency is about to unveil a series of ‘dark sky parks’, is welcome –

Details of a series of ‘dark-sky parks’ to endorse Scotland as the number one destination for stargazers are to be unveiled later this month. Scotland’s night skies are considered to be among the best in the world and both science and tourism experts believe rural areas could benefit from the plan to introduce stressed-out city dwellers to stargazing.

‘The night sky could be as important for tourism as the landscape,’ said a spokesman for Visit Scotland, the national tourism body, which is backing the initiative to rebrand Scotland as the first country in the world to establish rural areas as ‘dark-sky discovery sites’.

‘There are vast areas with dark skies which make Scotland a must-visit destination, offering a unique experience,’ the spokesman added.

Next year is the International Year of Astronomy and according to Steve Owens, UK co-ordinator of the global celebrations to mark it, there are sound economical reasons why the Scottish tourism industry should support the dark-skies initiative.

‘I’ve studied the stars from remote areas all over the world … Nowhere is the atmosphere so clear as in Scotland because the rain clears the skies and so, on a good night, the view is spectacular,’ Owens said. ‘Over half of the world’s population live in urban areas and we want to get those people to take time out and look at the night sky. It’s very early days to determine exactly the kind of market for dark-sky tourism but the UK has the highest percentage of amateur astronomers in Europe and there are thousands of people who subscribe to astronomy magazines and join societies. Places in the Western Isles and Highlands do well attracting tourists in the summer and hopefully the dark-sky parks will help them attract more visitors throughout the winter.’

Although Owens admitted Scotland’s often cloudy skies could present a problem for stargazers he claimed anyone spending a long weekend or more in a dark-sky area would have a good chance of seeing something spectacular.

The opportunity to see the night sky brilliantly illuminated by stars, or the Milky Way in all its glory with the naked eye, may be seriously limited in most of the UK but Scotland’s sparsely lit island communities have an advantage.

‘Light pollution destroys more than a chance to see the night sky, it transforms the atmosphere of a place,’ said Ian Stevens, proprietor of the award-winning Tobermory Hotel on Mull, who moved to the island eight years ago from west Yorkshire. ‘On a clear night, especially in winter, you can walk a short distance out of the hotel and see the Milky Way. Guests are often amazed by the night sky, especially those who come from city areas where they have never before experienced anything like it. They find it exciting and even romantic.

‘Most people have lived with light pollution all their lives so don’t know what they’ve been missing; very few have seen a truly dark sky with only the stars to illuminate it.’

At the right time of year the northern lights, or aurora borealis, can be viewed from Mull, providing a spectacular natural light show.

‘Scotland’s weather can be a bit of a gamble for stargazing, but for amateurs it is still probably one of the best places in Europe for dark skies,’ said Professor John Brown, Regius professor of astronomy at Glasgow university and Astronomer Royal for Scotland. ‘If we play it right, everybody can win. We should be able to double or treble the amount of visitors to an area.’

According to Dan Hillier of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, more than 30 organisations have so far been involved in the creation of the Dark Sky Scotland project, including the Forestry Commission.

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