Kelly: My name is Kelly Beatty. I am the Senior Contributing Editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, also astronomy teacher at the Dexter-Southfield School in Brookline, Massachusetts. I went to Cal Tech in California to get a degree in astronomy and ended up being on the staff of Sky & Telescope in 1974, where I’ve been writing about astronomy for the lay audience ever since. And it’s a job I just love.
Tim: 40 years is a pretty long time with any job.
Kelly: It is. It’s like the only job I’ve ever had. And you know Sky & Telescope is really dedicated to getting it right and getting it out there and so it was a perfect fit for me.
Tim: Well, I noted one thing that really animates you is light, and I mean for an astronomer light is everything. So here on earth what sort of problems do people have with light?
Kelly: Well, I want to take you back to my youth growing up in Central California, there really was no light pollution to speak of and any kid like me, interested in astronomy or not, would walk out into their backyard and bang, the sky would just be there to just amaze them and thrill them and get them to think big thoughts about what’s our place in the universe and how did we all get here.
And the problem is we’ve lost a lot of that. Over the year’s development and concern for security, more street lights, more fast food restaurants have created this pall in the night sky that we call light pollution that has made it really difficult to see the night sky in its natural state.
And so here we’re in the backwards of Maine with a dozen families who have come from Washington DC and New York City and Boston and all across the U.S., and in part they are here to steep themselves in the pristine darkness that used to exist everywhere.
Tim: No, is this a worldwide problem or is it more DC and more in some countries than others?
Kelly: There is an astronaut named Don Pettit, who has got a fascination with the night sky and if you look at some of the space station videos, you can see a ray, the blanket of lights from cities around the world just sort of playing out at night. There is this one video that just amazes me.
On one hand it’s pretty; it’s like little diamonds against the black background of the earth. And on the other hand it shows us how much we’ve lost by having all those lights on at night. They create a problem for virtually 99% of the world’s population cannot see. They have some form light pollution and in the U.S., for example, two-thirds of us can’t see the Milky Way, some of the most dramatic vistas of the night time sky are just gone.
Tim: So, Kelly when it comes to light pollution, there are different kinds light in the worlds, there is industrial, there is household, what sort of lights – does it matter, what kind, does it make a difference in the world of the light pollution?
Kelly: Yeah, so Thomas Edison gave us you know the incandescent light which we’ve all grown very familiar with and interestingly it’s very inefficient as a source of light given the amount of electricity it uses. And around 1970s or so a new generation of what’s called high intensity discharge lighting sources came on the market, the one everyone is familiar with is that kind of peach colored light in the night, at night time fixtures, that’s from high pressure sodium.
And so that produces far more light for the same amount of electricity. Well, that’s good and bad. What it allowed businesses and everyone else to do is to create a lot more light to light up the night, make it more like day light with the same amount of electricity. And also we’ve kind of become a 24/7 society if you think about it. It used to be that your town rolled up the sidewalks at 7 o’clock at night and now you can find all night pharmacies and fast food places and so all of that has created a kind of glow in the night. What’s worse is that these fixtures were initially very indiscriminate in where they put the light.
If you think about this light bulb for a second, it emits light in all directions, up, sideways and down. And when you’re trying to light a sidewalk or your parking lot, down is really the only direction that’s important, but in the mean time you get all this light that goes up and goes up into the atmosphere and is wasted.
So, what the International Dark-Sky Association started doing is, “hey look, if you take a light bulb that’s only half as much wattage regardless of its type and you take all of the light and put it down on the ground, you’ll get the same amount of light for half the wattage because nothing is wasted.” And that’s been sort of the premise of the light pollution movement, anti-light pollution movement for almost 30 years now.
The interesting thing is that, right now we’re on the cusp of a generational change in how we light the night and it has to do with LED. So, I got little LED flash light here, in the camera it’s very bright and the reason is, that the LED itself has a lens built in, it cannot shine light in all directions, it has to be pointed some place and obviously the best place to do that right, is to shine it down, so that it’s maximizing its light on the ground. Well, that’s fabulous from a light pollution standpoint. And so the IDA is really involved in getting these LEDs rolled out in not only energy efficient ways, but in outdoor lighting friendly ways.
One of the reasons that we are a little bit on the one side happy, and the other side concerned is that, the most efficient LEDs and you’ve probably noticed this, they have a kind of bluish light to them. Blue light is actually quite harmful to the night time environment. There are all these critters including people who are active at night and our bodies want darkness to replenish something in our blood stream called melatonin. It’s a chemical created by the pineal gland in the brain and it can only be produced when it’s really dark. Blue light causes the eye and the brain to stop producing melatonin at night. And so when you get up to go the bathroom and you flip-on the light switch or raid the fridge, whatever it might be, you’re actually doing your body damage because the melatonin production crashes and you have to start all over again. So that might be why you wake up cranky.
But, medical research is showing more and more that the melatonin level in your blood stream might be critical for the body’s defense against certain types of cancers. There’s research showing that breast cancer and prostate cancer is more problem among people who work night shifts.
Now, I’m not going to tell you that a little light coming in your bedroom window from the street light is going to give you breast cancer. That’s not my point. But we don’t know light’s effect on the human body. And there is a lot of research in that direction. So, it would be prudent to just be a little bit cautious in that.
In any case, LEDs can be colored to be less blue and that’s where the IDA comes in. We’re working with industry and lighting manufacturers and the federal government to create a standard where warmer lighting, we think if it is warm light becomes a little bit more prevalent. And we know this from our own experiences at home. You know compact fluorescent, those little squeakily light bulbs, the ones that are most efficient look kind of harsh to us and industry has responded by creating soft lighting compact fluorescent and the same is going to be true with LEDs and we hope this applies to street lights as well.
Because it really does – this is an incredible technology, it’s going to change the light the night and from the standpoint of light pollution, it has the potential at least to be a really good thing.
Tim: I’m going to go back for a second to the blue light, is that why looking at say a laptop screen can be so disruptive to sleep?
Kelly: Looking at a laptop screen or reading your smartphone just before you go to bed, it’s like one of the worst things you can do. Remember that melatonin isn’t produced just when you’re asleep, but it is produced when it’s dark and so by exposing your eyes, there is a little sensor in your eye that is a trigger for melatonin production that says, yes, it’s dark enough, produce melatonin. Well, that switch is left in the off position when there is blue light around.
Robin Miller: We need to wrap more things in red cellophane.
Kelly: Exactly. And in fact, astronomers have known this for decades that you could use red light at night to see where you’re going and it doesn’t affect your night vision and that’s related to melatonin production issue.
Robin Miller: Dark rooms too.
Kelly: Dark rooms as well, right.
Robin Miller: Now what sort of approaches does the Dark Sky organization have to do? What organization helps to change the state of light pollution?
Kelly: So, the IDA has been working with industry for decades to try to get them in the mindset that fixing light pollution and fixing the glare from bad lights is actually energy-efficient, it’s not just about saving the night sky, it’s actually an energy-efficient thing to do. And we’ve actually got the buy-in of lighting engineers and lighting manufacturers, they get it, they get light pollution now and you will see more Dark-Sky friendly fixtures on the marketplace, especially with regard to these – every manufacturer now has some level of Dark-Sky compliant fixture and in fact, the IDA has a kind of seal-of-approval that we bestow on those fixtures that are really good for the night-time environment.
And I would not be surprised to see a gradual improvement in light pollution, that is a lessening of light pollution over time. It’s taken us decades to get it this bad, right? And it’s going to take decades to get it fixed, but what we’re finding is that a lot of communities that are small and have a kind of quality of life that they want to be preserving, they’re on the forefront of adopting ultra lighting regulations, contacting the utilities and so forth.
The cities, that’s a little bit harder nut to crack, but the IDA has created a model ordinance for cities of all sizes that we’re starting to get adopted and I think over time, I think you’re going to see the light pollution issue becoming more in the forefront.
People know about light pollution now; they didn’t 10 years ago. And further, there are fixtures now that are economical to buy that will solve the problem that didn’t exist 15, 20 years ago. So, I think we’re converging on the solution for light pollution. I’m really optimistic that it’s going to get better and not get worse.
Tim: People are very used now to seeing things like Energy Star logos.
Tim: And certainly, UL seal of approval, so this is one more thing that can give someone guidance as to say this is a Dark-Sky approved sort of fixture.
Kelly: As one example, Lowe’s, the big household home improvement chain has recently agreed to start carrying a line of Dark-Sky friendly fixtures, and it’s good business because as I said, consumers are becoming aware of light pollution and they do look for these things and just the whole sustainability issue, this is wrapped up in it. We have a great partnership with other environmental awareness agencies. We’re doing work with wildlife, with the national park service, there are places that not only understand light pollution but they’re also really doing something about it.
Tim: Now, it’s an international association.
Tim: So are some countries – do some countries serve as models that you’d like to see emulate in the U.S.?
Kelly: It’s ironic that in some ways Europe in particular is way ahead of the United States in fighting light pollution. One of the things about LEDs that’s really attractive is that unlike these high pressure sodium bulbs, they can be turned on and off at will, they can be dimmed, you can do anything with them from the standpoint of the output. And so there are places in Europe where you can go that have street lights that only come on when a car is coming down the road, or a pedestrian is coming down the road. And I think you’ll see that adopted here in the United States a lot, especially in sort of pedestrian walkways. The sad thing is that we’ve grown to think of the dark as dangerous, and that more light makes us safer from a crime point of view and there’s just no solid evidence for that.
What we do know is that, when you have glare from a poorly shielded fixture, your ability to see what’s in the shadows is greatly reduced, and so the thing is the idea is not saying don’t put light at night, we know we need light at night, we are a 24x7 society and we need that kind of way finding in the dark.
What we’re saying is, let’s light intelligently, let’s put light where we need it, when we need it and only as much as we need and I think if we do that, it will be great.