05 April, 2006

Pitch black

An Ohio town, during and after the blackout.
My friend John Hayden wants an annual holiday celebrating the night sky, complete with a universal blackout (of lights, not necessarily of power). He arbitrarily proposed August 4th as the date, although precedent suggests the better date is August 14th, the anniversary of the 2003 blackout that covered most of northeastern North America and left 40 million people in the dark. For romantic reasons I'd prefer Midsummer (traditionally celebrated June 24; coincidentally, the 25th is a new moon this year).

Financial considerations mean any such holiday would be impossible, since the enormous enjoyment people would derive from being able to see the stars would not result in any growth in GDP*, and thus is, from a capitalist perspective, a useless activity not worth engaging in, and the total loss of consumption in a single night would probably amount to many billions of dollars worth of trade. Not to mention safety considerations (shutting down streetlights on highways, e.g.), enough to scare away even the wildest & craziest of municipal authorities.

This is unfortunate. Personally, stars are the closest thing I have ever come to worshipping, and the idea that one could, in the past, have been casually awestruck simply by gazing upwards at night both frustrates and inspires me. Sometimes I'll catch the moon in a moment like that - it's the only thing left that can still do this, and I think it's difficult for it to bear the weight of the job that the entire firmament used to accomplish. But when it's full and the sky is clear (or better, if there are only a few tufts of clouds), it can still quite take your breath away.

So light pollution is something of a nemesis of mine; even if its ecological impact is not that great, I believe it's quite spiritually damaging to us. Heaven is one of the most awesome sights available; a huge body of myth certainly testifies to that. I think I can say quite safely that we have produced nothing that compares to it, and we never will. Our spirits are left bereft and weaker because of that absence, and our devotion to nature is probably also consequently smaller. This may come across as mystic garbage, but I mean it quite seriously; we should take some care as to how our environment reflects on our souls.

There are groups dedicated to fighting light pollution, of course, the best known of which is the International Dark Sky organization. There's also this group of Neo-Luddites who in the past celebrated the anniversary of the 2003 blackout (though now no longer, maybe). On the other hand, if we want to be more pro-active, an enterprising group of individuals with some high-powered rifles could probably simultaneously knock down enough high-voltage power lines that they would trigger cascading power failures and take down a substantial portion of the electrical grid... but this sort of talk is quickly going to get me into trouble, so I'll end here.

* Yes, I considered telescope sales.


I'm rather proud of the fact that despite being tired, sore, bewildered, wet and incredibly hot while wandering around during the great New York black out of Aught Three, as soon as it got dark I remembered to start looking up, and was rewarded for my cleverness.

When I was backpacking in the Sierras, on some nights the sky was overwhelmingly bright, almost intoxicating. We could not even count the shooting stars, they came so fast. There was an astonishing amount of snow still on the ground in August that year, and one night in front of Matterhorn (the California version), we were exhausted and hating each other but we could not pull ourselves away from watching the moon rise over the mountain, and the snow sparkle in its forward wake.

Sometimes when I am terribly upset or very tired, and all else fails, I will slip outside and try and find the moon or the stars. Even though there is plenty of light pollution where I live, Orion will often do the trick. I'm less a star whorshipper than you--I just like being outside at night, if only for a few minutes--and I can't hate on the sparkly city lights that also please me. But I derive great pleasure from the thought that all over the world, people have watched the moon, and from all time. This is one reason why I am rather romantically against any building of a moonbase on the light side.  

Posted by Saheli

many smarter friends went to the nevada desert to gaze at comet hale-bopp back when.

i don't see what serious objections could be raised against a one hour event, even a couple times a year to address different sky views and seasonal likelihood of cloud cover. actually it wouldn't need to be national. metro areas tend to be isolated from each other and could do it on different nights.

if any metro area could take the lead on this it's the sf bay area. we have a very large south asian population now and from another friend i understand that star gazing is a very important thing. (i asked about this because of something i saw for myself - when mars was visible and i went to the science museum in the east bay to peek through the telescope, more than half the people waiting in line were south asian.)

this idea could be started through the fremont contingent to the association of bay area governments. 

Posted by hibiscus

Dude. It's the Bay Area. Half the people in line for ANYTHING are south asian. 

Posted by saurabh

i understand that star gazing is a very important thing 

Huh. I somehow feel like it's actually not. What do you think Saurabh? The moon, yes--if you're a Muslim you have to sight the crescent moon for some holidays, and if you're an observant Hindu, you may keep eye on the moonrise for breaking fast on others. But I feel like the perpetuation fo astrology actually separated stargazing out into a highly professional activity, which nobody else had any business spending time on. Sunrise, sunset, and noon are all big deals.

Of course any culture that encourages getting up at 4 am better provide some damn incentive. 

Posted by Saheli

dude. it's the bay area. 

hmm. maybe this is a blind-elephant issue. where i am, half the people in line are elderly chinese-american. i see one south asian-looking person in my day to day biz. move a little west and half the people are from the ukraine, with cyrillic talk bubbles over their heads. this afternoon everybody was pasty-faced; this evening at a café, everybody browsing the net wirelessly was doing it in groups and talking it over in spanish.

however i would not put it past my friend to have been lying in every conceivable way in answering my question about the crowd on the mountain. i will punish him severely at the next opportunity. 

Posted by hibiscus

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