orion nebula A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Orion Nebula \ ESO Digitized Sky Survey 2

THE NIGHT SKY is the biggest idea we know. It’s reality. You can’t run away from it. Pick any historical culture and you’ll find some kind of lore about the sky. The Greeks may have named Orion and his belt, but it is Kulkunbulla to the aboriginal Australians, or Shen to the Chinese. The stars have been a constant for millennia – mythical, mysterious, unknown, but there nonetheless. 

The night sky is a cultural compass. It always points away from us. And nothing crushes the ego quite like a Bible-black sky teeming with stars. Snuff the Earth out tomorrow and the 400 billion stars in our galaxy don’t feel a thing; 100 billion other galaxies go on as they did before. The contribution of humanity to the space beyond Earth’s orbit is essentially non-existent. We’ve sent a few tonnes of probes into space, and a lot of TV signals.

Our cultural self-actualization began almost 500 years ago when Nicolaus Copernicus set humanity on a journey away from the centre of the universe. It turns out Earth isn’t a special place; it’s just a planet orbiting a star. Later we learned that our sun was equally commonplace. And in just the past decade we’ve found hundreds of planets around other stars. 

We probably aren’t alone in the universe, either.

Yet, at this apex of astronomical discovery, it’s tragic that two thirds of humanity – that’s more than four billion people and growing – has little idea what a truly dark sky looks like. Light pollution in urban areas has reached unprecedented levels – in Beijing you simply can’t see stars.  

We built cities to protect us from nature. Now we light them to protect us from ourselves. And as our night sky changes and the stars disappear into our luminous safety blanket, so we change too. 

Slowly, inescapably, the majority of humanity is losing contact with something that is fundamental to our existence. The sense of awe that drove us to find answers to incredible questions is escaping us. Lest we forget, generations of stars needed to die for us to live.

A truly dark sky, one without the moon’s glare, feels like it is about to fall on you. The Milky Way pulls your eye from horizon to horizon, and the sky just seems to shimmer or even burn. Until a few decades ago almost every human that had walked the planet knew that sky.

You might think this loss of familiarity isn’t a big deal. But imagine having a long-distance relationship with your loved one – no intimacy, no contact. Anyone in this situation can tell you, “out of sight, out of mind” is worth heeding. Everything fades with time and absence.

The night sky is embedded within our language in ways that are easily overlooked: we go “over the moon” about the “stellar” performances of our “stars.” The unknown above has inspired music from Holst to Pink Floyd to Coldplay. Poetry, literature, film – all these media have drawn on the deep introspection the universe imposes on us, whether it be mortality or morality.

But can we actually document any changes to our culture? I can’t give you definite answers, but I can give you some thoughts. Change has happened slowly, imperceptibly to most. I’d love to compare drawings of the night sky by Canadian children from today’s cities to their country cousins. But what about the children of Beijing, Mumbai or Sao Paolo? Would they draw an orange glow with the moon? Do they actually think of it as a safety blanket? 

Urbanization appears to be beyond our control, and the economic systems we have created demand its continued growth. But without efforts to control light pollution, the night sky and the universe beyond our planet may slowly disappear from our thoughts.  

Rob Thacker is an astrophysicist, teacher, communicator and all round big kid. He is also an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Computational Astrophysics at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. NASA’s proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder project would study planets beyond our solar system for important clues on the conditions necessary for life to exist. Back on Earth, NASA has extensive research into our rapidly warming world.

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