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NEWS by Rick Fienberg
Light Pollution = Not Funny
Each Sunday, millions of US newspaper readers enjoy Parade magazine and the writing of columnist Marilyn vos Savant. I do too, usually. But I certainly didn’t enjoy her July 29th column, listing questions she’d gotten from readers that were “too funny” (by which I suspect she meant too stupid) to answer.
One was “Where did all the stars go? In the ’50s, the sky was loaded with them.” That’s not a funny or stupid question at all! Has she never heard about the problem of light pollution? It’s the reason why professional observatories are increasingly located in remote places, and why amateur astronomers are traveling farther and farther from home to observe under dark skies.
And it’s not just an astronomy problem but an economic one we spend billions of dollars each year lighting the undersides of airplanes at night. Moreover, there’s a long list of health and safety issues stemming from poorly designed and excessive outdoor lighting. A large and growing alliance of astronomers, lighting engineers, environmentalists, and politicians have joined forces to combat light pollution.
Another of her funny questions, about “falling stars,” reflects the simple confusion caused by using this term to describe a meteor. Those really aren’t falling (or shooting) stars at all, of course, but rather bits of interplanetary grit burning up in our atmosphere. If someone has heard of “falling stars” but never taken a course in astronomy, how could he or she be expected to know this?
Some of the other questions posed were pretty funny I chuckled reading “Does a 10-gallon hat really hold that much?” But by treating these two stargazing questions as too “funny” to answer, she missed two opportunities to educate her readers. Judge for yourself, and feel free to leave her an online comment with your thoughts on the matter.
Posted by Rick Fienberg, August 2, 2007