Friday, August 17, 2007

Lost in the stars

Most magazines take a vacation at some point during the summer, sending out a "double issue" to tide readers over. There may be readers somewhere out there who find this disappointing, but I am deeply, profoundly grateful when these double issues arrive in my mailbox, with a note to let me know that "The next issue of [magazine title] will be dated [in the future]." I can taste freedom! Freedom from the pile of magazines that crouch next to my desk, demanding to be read! Sometime before that designated future date arrives, I may reach the bottom of that pile! I may even be able to -- dare I hope -- read a book!

Alas, the summertime reprieve is never quite long enough, and it's always followed by a renewed onslaught -- in late July/early August, brand-new issues of all the magazines I subscribe to, even the bimonthly college alumni magazine, land in my mailbox at the very same time, and I'm right back where I started, toiling under a pile of magazines-to-read. Most of this pressure comes from The New Yorker: nearly every issue is densely packed with articles that are well worth reading, and a new issue arrives every single week. Keeping up involves as much work as pleasure on my part, and in the process, all of my other relationships suffer (I finally had to break it off with Harper's; I still care about you, I told Lapham et al., but I'm giving so much to high-minded magazines that I don't have time for myself anymore). One of these days my attachment to the New Yorker may weaken enough that I'll be able to resist renewing my subscription -- "I think I should try seeing other magazines," I'll say, and when they try to sweet-talk me into coming back ("Become a member of WNYC and we'll give you a subscription for free!" Oh, I know all their tricks), I'll just focus on what a fabulous time I'm having flirting with The Atlantic Monthly and exploring the possibility of a long-term relationship with Evelyn Waugh. You would think the fact that my affair with The New Yorker recently turned abusive would be enough to send me packing, but for now I'm still trying to make it work.

At the moment I'm in that post-vacation spot where, after taking advantage of the chance to come up for air, let my mind wander on the subway, and bring a book with me on vacation (albeit one written by a New Yorker staffer), I have more reading to do than ever. So I'm slowly making my way through the pile. But I wanted to stop and call your attention to a terrific article in the August 20 issue of The New Yorker that I just finished reading this morning. It's a feature by David Owen entitled "The Dark Side" (and hampered with the dry subtitle "Making war on light pollution"). I am sorry to report that it is not available online, aside from this dull abstract, but it's worth seeking out -- especially if you already have this issue sitting in a pile in your home, awaiting your attention.

Owen begins by describing the work of Galileo Galilei, who made his observations based on the astonomical bodies visible to him in 1610, and the obstacles met by modern-day astronomers hoping to see what Galileo saw. "The stars have not become dimmer; rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see." This is a simple yet astounding fact, and Owen spends the rest of the story laying out its causes and results. Reading the following excerpt will keep you awake at night (but that's okay, since the too-bright lights in your neighbor's yard and the glow of your alarm clock's digital display are probably disrupting your sleep anyway):
Civilization's assault on the stars has consequences far beyond its impact on astronomers. Excessive, poorly designed outdoor lighting wastes electricity, imperils human health and safety, disturbs natural habitats, and, increasingly, deprives many of us of a direct relationship with the nighttime sky, which throughout human history has been a powerful source of reflection, inspiration, discovery, and plain old jaw-dropping wonder.
There's no hysteria here, just simple, frightening facts, in a piece that's a joy to read because it's so very well written. It moves forward at a steady pace, never lingering too long in any one place. Owen can be funny without calling attention to himself in the process (something the New Yorker's staff writers often have trouble with) -- I laughed out loud at his description of "an empty parking lot so bright that you could deliver babies in it." And he talks about himself and his experiences researching and battling light pollution in a natural way -- his presence and his personal perspective add to the story, rather than distracting from it. Most important, Owen combines technical clarity with provocative, even poetic insight, as when he points out that "pervasive artificial illumination has existed for such a brief period that not even the species that invented it has had time to adapt, biologically or otherwise." Or: "In a truly dark sky, shooting stars are too numerous to bother wishing on."

Even before I got to his description of newborn sea turtles being lured to their deaths by artificial light, the article had won me over. Though I've never been particularly interested in astronomy, or space exploration, or outdoorsy activity of any kind, as I read I found myself mourning the loss of darkness and wondering what the cost has been for all of us. By the end of the piece I was convinced that light pollution, and its ill effects, is an issue I should care about, and an area where I am obliged to take some action. But at no point along the way did I feel Owen pushing me in that direction. He wrote an elegant article about a fascinating topic, and I enjoyed reading it so much that, when I reached the end, I flipped to the "Contributors" page to see whether he'd written anything else I could seek out. Not that I need anything more to read right now, but I might have made some time... and then I read, "David Owen is the author of Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement, which is out in paperback." You know, I think I'll wait for the movie.

1 comment:

Sars said...

That was a really good article. I read it in my bedroom (with all the lights off because I live on 4th Ave. in Brooklyn. Heh).