Seeing the stars in the 21st century…or not

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times ran a superb story called A Desert Plea: Let there be darkness about light pollution spreading from the city out into the desert, many many miles away.

This is something we noticed when we moved from the city out to the sticks ourselves — in ourselves.

Put simply, country people are comfortable with dark nights; city people are not.

As we grew accustomed to life outside of town, we eventually found ourselves taking comfort in the darkness, just as years before we took comfort in the lights of others, even people we didn't know. 

(How we feel about darkness is an interesting psychological phenomenon that Hemingway wrote about fairly directly in his justly famous short story A Clean Well-Lighted Place.)

But closer to home, reporter Rong-Gong Lin II closes with a wonderful anecdote: 

So foreign are the real night skies to Los Angeles that in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake jostled Angelenos awake at 4:31 a.m., the observatory received many calls asking about "the strange sky they had seen after the earthquake."

"We finally realized what we were dealing with," [Ed] Krupp, [director of the observatory] said. "The quake had knocked out most of the power, and people ran outside and they saw the stars. The stars were in fact so unfamiliar; they called us wondering what happened."

For those interested in seeing the stars, JPL has all sorts of wonderful resources…or, of course, you can go out to the unlit desert some cold night and just look up into the starry skies.

Here's a composite photo of the night sky over Death Valley, featuring the Milky Way, taken by a National Park Service ranger. 


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

2 thoughts on “Seeing the stars in the 21st century…or not

  1. My parents retired to suburban Tucson 25 years ago. Tucson was just beginning it’s explosive growth. I don’t know if they still have this law, but there were laws limiting the amount of light from streetlights businesses etc. because they interfered with the work of Kitt Peak National Observatory. I thought that was just great.
    I lived in a very small town with about twenty acres of fields for a backyard. I could set up a telescope on the back porch. I still live in the country but now I live close to a freeway and I can’t see many stars at all. I don’t really see why we need brilliant lights ever 20 yards.


  2. Yes, Tucson has been a leader in avoiding light pollution, or so I read, and it’s sweet because turning off lights late at night, making sure they are aimed downward, and other common sense measures have proven popular. Perhaps because of that connection to country traditions. Among the county supervisors in L.A., it’s an idea supported across the political spectrum, from Mike Antonovich on the right to Zev Yaroslavsky on the left.


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