Copernic discovered that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, but that it revolved around the Sun, in the 16th century. Later, astronomers discovered that the Sun was not at the center of the Universe, but that our solar system was part of a galaxy with billions of suns.
And then, that our galaxy is one among billions of galaxies in the Universe, each with billions of stars, and it is also an insignificant portion of a huge cosmos. “Light pollution” not only has an ecological cost of catastrophic dimensions; it is also cultural, aesthetic, anthropological. By An Anthropologist on the Moon.
“It was one of those clear, starry, dew-covered nights that oppress the spirit and crush our pride with stark proof of the terrible loneliness, of the dark hopeless insignificance of our planet.” Joseph Conrad (random)
We say “night”, but it contains seven parts: sunset, twilight, conticinum (the hour of night in which everything is silent), storm, galicinio, dawn and dawn. And more and more, looking at the sky and its stars on a dark and clear night, we feel crushed and humiliated. And that’s only a tiny part of the entire universe that we can see. In a city, one can barely distinguish between ten and two hundred stars. But out in the field, on a moonless night, up to 2,500 stars can be seen with the naked eye.
There is a word that helps explain this state or emotion: 幽玄 – Yūgen. Or rather, knowing that it is better not to explain it. The kanjis that make up this word mean darkness and mystery, calm and depth. It’s about letting go and being able to appreciate and express what touches us without falling into useless obstinacy in wanting to explain and describe absolutely everything.
Junichiró Tanizaki writes in “Praise of the Shadow”: “Just as a stone that glows in the dark loses all of its mesmerizing feel of a precious gem if exposed to bright light, beauty loses all of its existence if shadow effects are removed.»
“I’m no expert on stars, but the starry sky has an understandable charm even for the less experienced. Nature often communicates even without the need for interpretation, so obviously those who know her can see more things“, explains Irene Borgna, anthropologist and naturalist guide. She traveled by motorhome in search of the most remote corners of light pollution, from where you can admire the starry vault. And then he wrote the book “Cieli Neri”.
“We embarked on this adventure journey driven by a playful search for these places and we were passionate, we wanted to understand who takes the night, what stories are hidden behind these places. During the day we explore and at night we enjoy the sky.»
“At some point you realize that many people have not had access to the night with so many stars. An example of this distortion is the total change in the contemporary perception of the night. It seems absurd to us to read how Van Gogh had access to skies so black that he could distinguish the color of the stars. Mass electrification is a recent process, something as old as night, it was erased in 150 years.”
And it is that in this book, whose full title is “Black Skies. As light pollution steals our night”, Irene Borgna recounts the journey that took her under the darkest skies in Europe: an opportunity to reflect on the often underestimated problem of light pollution. Public lighting was born a little over a hundred years ago, and around their thirties it became the norm for a large part of humanity to have bright nights, and we remain locked up like molluscs in our own light.
According to the new atlas of the artificial luminosity of the night sky, published in Science Advances in 2016 (as an update of the original version of 2001), the possibility of seeing the Milky Way (“our home in the Universe”, as Borgna writes) it is closed to more than a third of humanity. So much so that on January 17, 1994, immediately after the powerful Los Angeles earthquake, when the city was plunged into darkness, numerous phone calls were made to 911 and to the nearby Griffith Astronomical Observatory in because of the strange silver cloud hanging over the city: many residents had never seen it and feared it was a threat. In March, a study showed for the first time the link between light pollution and the spread of pathogens: By analyzing chickens in different areas of Florida, researchers observed how exposure to low levels of nighttime light coincides with an increased risk of West Nile virus infections. virus. And it is even more influenced than other factors such as human population density.
In the past, light pollution has been shown to lengthen the duration of a house sparrow’s infection, potentially aiding the spread of the virus. There is another problem with light pollution: it affects the circadian rhythm. Everyone has a rhythm imprinted in the DNA that marks the cyclical succession of sleep and wakefulness depending on lighting conditions. There are those that evolved to stay awake, move, migrate, feed, build a nest or den, and breed during the day and those that, on the other hand, must do the same in the dark.
If we modify the alternation of light/darkness with the irradiation of artificial light after sunset, lengthening the day and, in fact, canceling out the night, we subtract vital space and time from the thousands of species that need darkness to survive. Perhaps the best-known example of artificial light interference at night is that of sea turtles, disturbed in their nesting on the beach by the light from street lamps, which disturbs them by deflecting their course towards the ocean. .
But from insects and mammals (especially bats) to fish, reptiles and birds, no one is immune to the disturbance of artificial light. Moths (which set their migratory route based on the Moon or particularly bright stars) and migrating birds are confused by light sources, causing disastrous route diversions, with fatal consequences.
Thousands of birds are killed each year by crashing into lighted windows, and seabirds are attracted to the ground by light sources. We disrupt aquatic environments by preventing algae and micro-organisms from growing, clownfish eggs from hatching and salmon from navigating. Nighttime light from sources such as street lamps also affects plant growth and flowering.
“We sapiens are no exception: if our daytime ape circadian rhythm is disrupted because we persist in prolonging our wakefulness after sunset by lighting too much at night, we run the risk of insomnia and melatonin deficiency. Our body ends up confusing the night with the day, it no longer releases the hormone of sleep and rest, altering our biological rhythms and compromising the functions of the immune system.» «Those who work nights and sleep during the day have poor circadian rhythms and are more likely to develop diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, as well as a higher incidence of various forms of depression. Ultimately, joking around with the circadian rhythm doesn’t seem like a good idea in the long run.”. “Light pollution” not only has an ecological cost of catastrophic dimensions; it is also cultural, aesthetic, anthropological.
“Finally, personally, I am convinced that a child without stars risks becoming an adult who does not dream.” Borgna warns. “Spending a night under a “serious” starry sky where you can admire the Milky Way in all its beauty is something that changes you: it’s like swimming in the sea, it sticks to your skin. But those with a dull sky overhead lose interest in looking up and it’s not their fault: the sky isn’t very interesting”
Niue is a country of just over 1,600 people, an island in the South Pacific. The smallest autonomous state in the world and which since 1974 has depended on New Zealand (which is 2400 kilometers away) for its defense and to receive administrative and economic assistance. It is 259 square kilometers of land. Rainforests cover most of its surface, interrupted only at the ocean’s edge by extravagant fossilized coral formations.
His government replaced all streetlights on the island with more sky-friendly options, but it didn’t stop there, it also explored new ways to improve home lighting. For this reason, it has received official accreditation from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary and an International Dark Sky Community.
Niueans have a long history of stellar navigation and a life regulated by lunar cycles and the position of the stars. Knowledge of the night sky, in the hands of community elders, has been passed down from generation to generation. Niue alumni now hope that the passion for learning about the cultural history of stars will be reignited among younger generations. The Milky Way with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the Andromeda Constellation are truly a sight to behold.
*And no. It is not true that more light means less crime and fewer traffic accidents. For example, too much misdirected light has been shown to dazzle drivers, and bright white lights blur more than they reveal, blinding victims of violence and even surveillance cameras. For the streets of the city to be safe, it is not necessary to have too much light, but quality lighting that illuminates without dazzling, evenly distributed with the minimum of light points, preferably with warm colored light.