The A to Z of Light Pollution

The Stratford upon Avon Astronomical Society's May 2003 lecture was given by Bob Mizon, a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He gave a talk entitled "An Astronomical Alphabet", in which we were shown a series of twenty-six slides whose titles ranged from A in the alphabet to Z. Bob Mizon is also the coordinator for the Campaign for Dark Skies and so at the end he gave us an update of what is happening at present in the fight against light pollution.

The major newspapers have recently run articles about the loss of our dark skies to light pollution. In March 2003 a Select Committee including eleven MPs was formed to discuss this problem. They are to have an informal meeting on 4 June 2003 at Greenwich Observatory, which will also be attended by Bob Mizon. On 9 June 2003 there will be a formal meeting in the House of Commons.

For three million years, the human race has been able to look skywards on clear nights, and wonder at the starry vault, crossed by the Milky Way (our own galaxy seen from inside), the slowly moving planets and the occasional flash of a meteor ploughing through the atmosphere high above.

Since about 1950, these sights have been gradually taken away from us by the baleful glow of wasted light escaping from poorly aimed and often over-bright artificial lamps, which is then scattered by airborne particles and aerosols. Over great cities, towns and even small villages, light pollution robs us, in the last millisecond of its journey, of light which may have traveled for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years to reach our planet.

While there is a trend nowadays for road lighting to be better directed, not least because of the efforts of concerned bodies of astronomers such as the International Dark-Sky Association and the British Astronomical Association's Campaign for Dark Skies, most private lighting is not designed to restrict emissions to the premises to be lit, causing light trespass and nuisance to both astronomers and non-astronomers. The fact that light is not legally considered a pollutant like noise and smoke means that victims of light pollution have little redress, and the stars have no protection in law.

Here is a modern irony: spacecraft and telescope technology can deliver breathtaking views of the near and far universe, while the technology which lights our nights simultaneously draws a veil across the night sky. Are we cutting ourselves off from the direct experience of the rest of the universe?

For more information, visit the Light Pollution section of our website.