Tag Archives: International Dark Sky Association

Is Resistance (to Light Pollution) Futile?

For the benefit of the few readers of this blog who may not be familiar with the term, light pollution is excessive and misdirected outdoor lighting that makes it difficult to impossible to observe objects in the night sky.

With the definition out of the way, some organizations such as the International Dark Sky Association and Globe at Night claim that their efforts to raise awareness of this issue have met with a measure of success.  While this may indeed be the case, I think the progress has been minimal.

One example concerns Earth Hour, which was from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM on March 28th.  What is supposed to happen during Earth Hour is that people are supposed to shut off their outdoor lighting for the duration.   Instead, very little of the sort actually happened as is usual for every year this event has been held.  The lamestream media did give it some mention and pointed out that some towns and cities celebrated it.  These “celebrations” were quite noncommittal and merely involved turning off the outdoor lights around a prominent local landmark or two.  Besides this governmental involvement, nobody appears to have done anything.  Yet, when there is an occasion that asks for people to turn lights on, such as the National Night Out held every August, the level of participation is very high.  Apparently, people have a strong aversion to turning off their outdoor lights even though it costs them money for the electricity and the security benefits are limited (according to sources such as the FBI).

What I would like to see is a city or town decide to celebrate Earth Hour with a partial reenactment of a World War II-era blackout.  Younger readers of this blog might not be aware that, during the war, people were in fear of being bombed at night by the enemy.  For the British, this fear was very real as the Luftwaffe frequently bombed targets in Britain under the cover of night during the early part of the war.  In the United States, the fear was more hypothetical as the capabilities of the enemy were not well known.  While the country was definitely out of range of German aircraft, the range of the Japanese planes was largely unknown in the early days of the war and there was speculation that they could reach targets on the west coast.  To frustrate night bombers, towns and cities adopted a blackout strategy where, when a signal was given, every source of possible outdoor illumination was either shut off or completely shielded.  While this was not 100% effective in Britain (the Germans had an early sort of radio navigation), it did make it harder for British cities to be struck, and in the United States, blackouts did raise war awareness among the public.  Getting back to the main point of the paragraph, towns and cities should celebrate Earth Hour by turning off as much outdoor illumination as possible (except traffic signals) and possibly even compete with one another for achieving the greatest light reduction.

Another example was a recent news article that carried a night-time satellite image of the Korean peninsula.  South of the 38th parallel, there were brightly lit cities and towns.  North of it, almost complete darkness.  The author of the article was implying that light pollution is a sign of economic vigor and is a good thing, despite growing evidence of health and ecological problems it causes.  By not having light pollution, North Korea was dysfunctional.  Actually, one doesn’t need a satellite image to figure that out.  Any society where the police manual has a chapter devoted to cannibalism has very serious problems and lighting is not going to fix that.

However, for any serious progress to be made against light pollution, there would need to be a change in mentality that I do not see happening.  An example of the kind of thinking that helps perpetuate light pollution was aired on my local AM radio station.  Every Wednesday morning, they have a short (about forty minutes) program hosted by Milton Paris, titled “Getting Ahead in Business”.  Each program, Paris would bring on a business owner that he met at one of his public functions and that owner would describe his business while Paris would ask questions and make favorable comments.  Recently, he had the owner of a sign company and the two of them waxed rhapsodic over illuminated business signs.  The part that caught my attention was when they said that it made good sense to leave said signs on all night as advertising.  Aside from the obvious contribution to the light pollution problem, such an approach would be wasting money for those businesses since they would be spending money on electricity to power the signs when there is nobody around to see them.  While I am not advocating doing away with illuminated business signs, nor am I against their use for advertising, I believe that an intelligent business would have them shut off after a certain time when potential viewers of the signs are not around.  After all, a sign shining at three in the morning is not likely to be seen by anyone except the occasional over-the-road truck driver or police officer on patrol.  In short, why pay to put on advertising when there is no audience?

The point of all this is that there cannot be much real progress against light pollution until the mindset of leaving lights on all night even when there is no need for them is changed.  Does anyone see any way to change that?

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Is “The Big Bang Theory” the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” of Space Science?

Since it is the start of the new television season, I thought it would be a reasonably appropriate time to bring this up.

For the benefit of those readers who are either young or are not too familiar with the history of radio and television, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was a program that started out on radio in 1928 and was created by two white actors/writers Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll who were inspired by a conversation they overheard between two African-American janitors.  Originally, it was a 15-minute nightly dramatic program and, in 1943, morphed into a weekly sitcom that ran until 1955 and finally a music program from 1955 to 1960.  During its radio run, Gosden and Correll did most of the voices (being radio, they could get away with it).  In 1951, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” moved to TV and had an all-African-American cast.  The TV version was almost immediately met with divided opinion in the African-American community.  Some had no problem with it.  Others, such as the NAACP, felt it perpetuated negative stereotypes.  The opinion of the NAACP carried the day and the show was taken off the air in 1953, though it managed to hang on until 1966 in syndication.  Here is an article with some detail on the program.

Now, back to the present discussion.  “The Big Bang Theory” is a sitcom which deals with a small group of scientists (presumably astrophysicists and others who work for NASA) and their misadventures.  However, it is not a flattering portrayal and, in my opinion, perpetuates negative stereotypes about people in the sciences much the same way “Amos ‘n’ Andy” perpetuated negative African-American stereotypes.   For instance, the scientific protagonists on “The Big Bang Theory” are portrayed as extremely inept and dysfunctional in any area outside of science and technology.  Being an amateur astronomer and follower of space science, I have seen many in the field who are totally unlike what you see on that sitcom.

For instance, there were some members of my astronomy club who served with distinction in the military (in World War II, no less) and went on to make inventions, including one (a means of measuring errors in transmitted data) that had impact in the nuclear industry, was used by the U.S. Navy, and probably had a role in the creation of what we would later call the Internet.  Then there was one member who endured terrible hardships (the Ukranian famine as well as a stint in a Nazi slave labor camp) and went on to become a very productive citizen and prominent member of the club.

I have also seen some professional astronomers who would not look out of place in a country-western bar.  Most space scientists I have seen look perfectly normal.

This raises the question of why Chuck Lorre, the creator of the show, would choose to have such a stereotypical depiction of space scientists.  After all, I doubt he would be crude enough to insult people like those club members I mentioned above.  Granted, there may be some in the field who share some of the traits of those sitcom characters, but in this day and age, we are supposed to frown on such stereotyping in entertainment media.  It wasn’t that long ago that a sitcom was yanked off the air because of a single joke based on a Puerto Rican stereotype.  I suspect that he feels that it is acceptable to ridicule small groups who lack clout in the lamestream media, ones who are unlikely to lead sponsor boycotts or other types of resistance.

Since the show does well in the ratings and rakes in huge amounts of money in syndication, it is unlikely that it will ever be retooled to address this grievance.  The best that could be hoped for in this regard would be the addition of some space scientists who are not stereotypes to balance things out.  However, this is also unlikely.

One solution I would suggest is that Chuck Lorre take some actions on his own to show that he is not against space scientists.  For instance, a publicized donation of a significant sum to a group like the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) or the Planetary Society would be a good move.  Another would be to show support for amateur astronomers, possibly by making cast members available for personal appearances at astronomy events (with either Lorre, the production company, or CBS eating the appearance fees).  These actions would be like the requirements that a polluter take steps to mitigate the effects of the pollution they create.  In addition, these steps would bring useful publicity to astronomy and space science.

Do you have any suggestions on how to counter negative space science stereotypes?  Are these negative depictions an issue or are they best ignored?