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In a world increasingly bathed in artificial light, where the glow of modern civilization obscures the stars above, recreational stargazers, environmentalists, and scientists champion the preservation of natural darkness. Light certainly has value, but darkness is easily overlooked.

"If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare."  –Ralph Waldo Emerson

The natural dark sky activates awe, inspiration, and curiosity

Gazing at the awe-inspiring canvas of the cosmos activates a host of benefits. Indeed, awe contributes to making you healthier, happier, more humble, and more connected to the people around you. It also calms the nervous system and triggers the release of the “love” hormone oxytocin. For many, awe starts in childhood.

“My earliest experiences noticing the night sky were on the family farm where I grew up in rural Arkansas. We lived out in the country away from city lights, and therefore, the night sky was quite dark,” says Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Senior Project Scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope. “I would look up in the night sky, be curious about what I was seeing, and wish I could just kind of blink my eyes and suddenly go to that star or that one and look around.”

 Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory, grew up stargazing at his family’s summer home on Lake Huron near where he grew up in Detroit. His earliest memories “go back to before I can remember remembering if that makes sense! My father loved the night sky, and he had been trained as a navigator during World War II.” 

Many, however, grow up in urban centers without access to dark night skies but find inspiration via images from space exploration, including those from Voyager, moonwalks, of exotic moons like Europa and Io, and the phantasmagoric photos from the James Webb Space Telescopes. Science fiction movies and TV such as “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” are also an inspiration.

“My earliest memory at the age of six was the grainy black and white television picture of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the moon,” says Reverend Professor David Wilkinson of Cranmer Hall Durham. “At that point, because I lived in an urban environment with lots of street lighting, seeing the stars was very difficult. But that moment of seeing the first human being taking a step on the moon at the age of six was one of those moments where you just begin to think there’s more to this universe than just soccer.” 

“Hello darkness, my old friend I've come to talk with you again.” –Paul Simon

It connects us to our ancestral humanity

Dark Sky places are “invaluable,” says Wiseman. “You think about humanity for all the eons of time that have had the experience, just walking outside and looking up and being reminded that there’s something vast and incomprehensible above us that almost overshadows our existence. And yet it’s only in our last century or so that we’ve really started to drown out that sensation because of our own, what we would call now light pollution.”

Brother Guy cites Pope Benedict’s homily on Easter 2012, in which Benedict said, “Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible.” 

“The theology of light and dark is the symbolism and so much of scripture, we’ve lost all of that,” says Brother Guy. “The inspiration you get from looking at the sky and realizing that the universe is bigger than just me. I have a feeling a lot of people don’t want to look. They’re afraid to look, and they fill the sky with light because they’re scared.”

“We live in a world where we think reality is happening on TV, and we’re just in this dull world,” says Brother Guy. “And the truth is the other way around.” 

Watching the dark sky advances human understanding 

Light pollution can even obscure powerful telescopes. The dark sky unlocks crucial insights into our universe’s deepest mysteries. 

When you look up, “You’re looking at least 13.8 billion years of the universe’s evolution,” says Wiseman, whose expertise is in understanding star formation. 

“We’ve been able with professional telescopes to study the universe in more detail. We’ve been able to look back in time because astronomy is a time machine. Everything we look at in deep space is appearing as it was when the light first began its trek toward us,” says Wiseman “In our own galaxy, that can be everything from a few years ago to a hundred thousand years ago. But when we look outside of our galaxy at other galaxies full of stars, we see them as they were millions and sometimes billions of years in the past.”

“We now know that planets form along with stars. We even know that in our Milky Way, almost every star has at least one planet. That’s really exciting,” says Wiseman, adding that the universe as a whole has become more hospitable to life over time.

Seeing what we don’t see 

“From an astrophysical perspective, what we don’t see is actually more significant than what we do see. For example, most of the matter in the universe is unseeable. It’s called dark matter, yet we know it’s there because we can detect its gravitational effects. Those effects are quite pronounced. The dark matter within galaxies, like our own Milky Way, affects the orbits of stars around the galaxy. So, we know it’s there. We just don’t know exactly what it is,” says Wiseman.

“But on the large cosmic scale, we also see its effects on space-time itself. Einstein predicted that all matter distorts space-time,” says Wiseman, speaking about gravitational lensing and more.

“There’s another unseen phenomenon called dark energy, which is also unseeable, but we detect its effects—the universe appears to be expanding at an accelerating rate,” says Wiseman. “We now know there’s been a kind of a tug-of-war between these two unseen phenomena: dark matter has the attractive effect of gravity – so trying to pull things back together while dark energy has been trying to push things apart. The interaction of these unseen phenomena, dark matter, and dark energy has resulted in the distribution of galaxies we have today…” 

“There’s kind of a balance between the dark matter and the dark energy,” says Wiseman. “The unseen things are actually having more impact than the seen things in the universe as a whole.”

It connects us to spirituality, reflection, and transcendence 

“A number of years ago, a theologian wrote a book with a lovely title, which he simply called Your God Is Too Small,” says Wilkinson.

“My consistent experience in astronomy and astrophysics, whether it be solar eclipses or some of the pictures from the new James Webb Telescope, which are stunning, is that reminder that the way I often image or think about the transcendent is much too small. It’s often based on my experience of the everyday world. Making God in our own image is very easy to do,” says Wilkinson, who mentions Psalm 8:3-5.

“The God who created a hundred billion stars and a hundred billion galaxies is much more exciting, much more extravagant, much more mysterious, much more amazing than my theological understanding,” says Wilkinson, adding that God’s characteristics, beyond faithful sustainer of the universe and divine mathematician, is an artist creating with color, fun, vitality, and dynamism.

Darkness is essential for life on Earth

Natural dark night skies aren’t just a scenic resource but a cultural and natural resource. Light cycles affect human health and are crucial to the survival of many animal and plant species. Approximately 70% of mammals and 60% of all known species are nocturnal. The ecological destruction from artificial light at night severely affects ecosystems.

Beyond blocking the stars, “Light pollution robs us of science and wonder and discovery and connection to the past and heritage,” says Ruskin Hartley, CEO and Executive Director of DarkSky International, who has a background in environmental protection. 

“More and more, we understand that light pollution directly impacts almost every living thing. Light pollution is disrupting individual species from pollinators to birds to plants. Even now, we’re learning that fish and corals in the ocean – their foraging, nesting, and reproduction behaviors are being changed by light pollution, even at relatively low levels. And so, we need to start thinking about light pollution as a true pollutant, as a stress on the environment, much in the same way as we think of dirty air and dirty water and plastics in the ocean and excess carbon in the atmosphere.”

Dark sky places and preventing light pollution

“Here in North America there are precious few places where you can go and experience a naturally dark sky free of the impact of light pollution,” says Hatley. 

The good news is that resources abound, including Dark Sky International, the National Parks Service: Dark Skies Division, and the National Park Service: Exploring Night Skies. They offer tips for consciously lighting your home and community, including backyards, parking lots, street lights, and more.

Many observatories allow us to see dark skies via telescopes. “Honestly, I think I got more inspiration from looking at the night sky with my own eyes because telescopes are great for magnifying individual objects, but they don’t give you the big picture,” says Wiseman.

If you can’t visit a Dark Sky Place, find what best approximates it. Visit during a new moon, when the lunar disk is not visible, and bask in the splendor. A favorite place for Brother Guy: “There was the Okie Tex Star Party in the western panhandle of Oklahoma, where the sky was so dark that the Milky Way cast a shadow!” 

Look up, says Wilkinson. “There might be, on another planet, perhaps in another galaxy, a couple of people having a conversation about the significance of the night sky.”