Light Pollution = Not Funny

too funny
Kelly Beatty
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.

37 thoughts on “Light Pollution = Not Funny

  1. Tachyon

    I’m glad you caught this and posted it. It’s such a shame that the sky (50% of what every human can see) is so overlooked. I posted my thoughts on the Parade article and I hope we’ll see some more.

  2. TJacobs

    Thank you for pointing this out! As soon as I saw this article I went and registered for who knows how much spam email from Parade in order to be able to post my thoughts on light pollution…and whatever makes it through my spam filters will be worth it to try and raise awareness that light pollution is a serious problem, and in many cases completely unnecessary!

  3. Otis

    Shame on me for reading it and not putting in my 2 cents!My first thought on reading it was that maybe she thought everybody understands this issue! Well now I understand that even the brightest of us need educating. Thanks for waking me up!

  4. Stephen

    I certainly knew about “falling stars” by high school graduation. My high school had no astronomy courses. But you might know these things from a variety of sources. Maybe even TV. I also read sci-fi. Asimov and Clarke put real science in their stories.

    She’s supposed to be how smart? Well, no matter how smart you are, there’s always someone who knows something that you don’t. My ten year old has already demonstrated knowledge i don’t have.

    Still, in print, you can act as if you know everything. Nearly anything can be researched. For example, type “falling star” into Google… Perhaps she thought she knew what a “falling star” was, and didn’t check.

    Lots of really cool stuff is counterintuitive. In high school, i could divide one 9 digit number by another 9 digit number getting 9 significant digits of answer in my head in about a minute. Who would have thought that playing with an abacus for a few months might lead to that kind of skill?

    So, the phrase, “mad as a hatter” stems from mercury poisoning?

  5. ronny schaefer

    Not to detract from the seriousness of this issue, but it is very funny that both questions seem to be related in a sureal sense, namely, that an un-informed reader of Parade may conclude that perhaps all the stars that used to be in the sky during the 50s are missing simply because they indeed have fallen down to earth as shooting stars…! More seriously, astronomers are notoriously known to choose the most inappropriate names for the objects they study. Thus whereas laypersons may see meteors as falling stars, astronomers have been calling thousands of planetoids in our solar system “asteroids” (“star-like”), and thousands of whole giant galaxies “QSOs”, or quasi-stellar objetcs…!

  6. Enrico

    She used to do the talk show circuit years ago, aside from having a high iq rating no one ever mentioned any other achievements of hers. GUess I’ll do what she did not, ie use google to find out! Seriously, I am always surprised by the lack of basic astronomical knowledge among otherwise well educated people. Not specialized knwledge , but basic stuff one does learn in grammar school.

  7. Justin SJustin Skywatcher

    C’mon guys, lightne up! She was right! Those ARE too funny to answer. “Where did the stars go? Nowhere. They’re stil there! How many people in this moedern world really think that meteors are ‘shooting stars?’

  8. Jon Collman

    This is very reminiscent of the flood of calls to 911 on the East coast during one of the early massive power blackouts in which panicked citizens wanted to know if it was the end of the world or an invasion by Aliens!
    They had never seen Stars before and suddenly there were thousands of them appearing out of nowhere – must be an Alien invasion or some other catastrophe – surely!
    I’m sure there were some pretty bright folks wondering as well….and we already know there ain’t no shortage of stupidity in the world.

  9. Frank R

    Giving MvS the benefit of the doubt here, it’s quite possible she has no idea how much the sky has changed for many people. From the brief biographies I’ve read, she has lived in cities her entire life. It may well seem nonsensical to her that there has been any real change.

  10. Joseph Slomka

    In the 25 years I have lived in the Albany, NY area, the light pollution has become severe. When I first moved here and observed, I could see the Milky Way from the park adjoining my home. Now is completely blocked by sodium street lamp glow. On recent nights, all I could see was the Summer Triangle, Jupiter, and Antares, with a few of Scorpius’ stars.

    If Ms. Vos Savant has lived all her life in cities, then there is a very good chance she has never see the night sky in all its glory. However, most major cities have planeteria, where she would have, at least, a vicarious experience and access to people who know about astronomy and light pollution.

    Joseph Slomka
    Albany Area Amateur Astronomers

  11. Tarmo Tanilsoo

    Somebody has too much gotten used to city life. I live 10 kilometers from nearest town and in my village, skies are rather starry. I can even see the Andromeda Galaxy. I know, that practically, only thing you will see in the city will be the Moon, unless there is a major power outage. Light pollution is a very big problem. In my opinion, it is also indicating that cities are growing too large. Save the starry skies!

  12. Tony Francour

    Marilyn vos Savant did miss a great opportunity to educate people. I grew up where the stars shine brightly at night. A wonderful place for a boy with a telescope. I now live in a small city and view the few visible stars through a dull milky sky. Thankfully we have an astronomy department at our local university that is fighting to change this. Ms vso Savant missed the chance to influence an unimaginable number of people. Hopefully she will seize the opportunity to correct that mistake.

  13. bonoTheKlown

    geez, i don’t know why you fine folks are getting all cerebral and all, but i thought falling stars are people like nick nolte, robert blake, and lindsay lohan. those objects in the sky you might be referring to are nothing more than asteroids, NASA space junk, and ufo’s. one time an astronaut dropped a wrench and during its gradual descent i hope it burns up before it hits me on the head. i try not to take things too serious, i think i’m just a regular guy and i try to observe things in perspective.

  14. David

    Maybe MS.Marilyn should pull her head out of of her black hole and look up once and a while. Attitudes like hers are why we waste Billions of KW of power and daily(nightly) and the fuel to generate it.

  15. CeeGee

    It’s not that funny a question. do you laugh at child who asks that question? Do you laugh when they ask how to spell or pronounce simple words? No. and neither should you laugh at those who aren’t as educated as yourself. She’s a little condescending and needs to come off her high horse. A high IQ doesn’t mean she has a good “bedside manner”.

  16. Gerry Powell

    I remeber years ago I could see the Milky Way, and the view in bimoculars was great. Now I look up and I’m lucky If I can see a 1st Mag. star! I wonder why those clouds in the sky are pink?! I live in Philadelphi Pa .

  17. Steven B.

    I agree with Ronny and Justin. The question IS stupid and there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. Look at the way the question is phrased: The person who asked it actually believes there are fewer stars now than there were 50 years ago! Ms. Vos Savant didn’t make light of the problem of light pollution. True, she might have taken the opportunity to enlighten (no pun intended) her readers about problem, but that’s not her job. Her column is meant to entertain, and this question, along with the others she included, amused me immensely.

  18. Roberta W

    It’s true! The stars have disappeared! When I first got out a star chart and looked up there were so many stars I couldn’t find any constellations at all. I gave up. (mid-50’s in Winslow, Arizona) Now I look up and there are so few stars I can’t find any constellations either. (suburban Southern California) It’s not a stupid question. Our national leaders need to investigate this disappearance! Marilyn should investigate and explain rather than laughing.

  19. Steven B.

    I agree with Ronny and Justin. The question IS stupid and there’s nothing wrong with pointing that out. Look at the way the question is phrased: The person who asked it actually believes there are fewer stars now than there were 50 years ago! Ms. Vos Savant didn’t make light of the problem of light pollution. True, she might have taken the opportunity to enlighten (no pun intended) her readers about problem, but that’s not her job. Her column is meant to entertain, and this question, along with the others she included, amused me immensely.

  20. Mo

    I think it’s more sad than funny that someone needs to ask where the stars went. I grew up in a very populated area and didn’t realize how many stars I WASN’T seeing because of our light pollution until I started spending more time out in the country in my early 40s! I think it deserved an intelligent and educated answer, not the derision it was given.

  21. gdjg

    Just reading these comments is funny. It’s amazing how much people really don’t know about the Heavens,even the smartest ones turn out to be foolish. I think this was written about man in the beginning. Keep up the good work guys.

  22. Astromama

    The only truly stupid question is the one you don’t ask; and nobody can be held responsible for information they haven’t been exposed to. MvS may have a high IQ, which is a nice blessing, like a lovely singing voice or attractive face. However, her superior, derisive attitude toward her audience was what caused me to stop reading her column years ago.

  23. Scott

    I must agree that Mrs. vos Savant missed an opportunity to speak on behalf of reducing the effects of light pollution, and the condescending tone in the article was incredibly plain for all to see.

    However, the returning condescention and outright insulting tone from those pointing this out on the “Parade” site didn’t help our cause, either.

    Quite honestly, some of the responses remided me of the stereotypical college militant activist, more willing to firebomb the administration building than to actually DO something about an issue.

    While light pollution is a very real issue, taking civility from the discussion only serves to turn people away, thinking us to be “angry environemtalist kooks.”

  24. Mike Richardson

    If there was but one good thing that came from Hurricane Katrina, it would have to be that it showed us just how bad the light pollution problem really is. Living in a small communtiy about 60 miles north of New Orleans, I didn’t realize the light pollution was so bad.Katrina plunged hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast into complete darkness. I went outside the night of August 29th, 2005. The night sky was breath taking. There is so much to see when there is no light pollution. Little by little, the power grid was restored. We had 5 nights of freedom from light pollution. The beautiful skies slowly but surely faded away. If it weren’t for those minor inconveniences; no air conditioning, cold showers,no food, no gasoline, I wouldn’t have been so happy when the power was finally restored. I will never forget the night sky after Katrina.

  25. John

    I think Marilyn understands light pollution, and just thought it was funny that someone would *not* be aware of it and think stars had disappeared.

    About the question “Suppose we could get all living beings on Earth to face one direction and then begin running. Would this influence the speed of the Earth’s rotation?”
    Not only is the answer yes (but the change would be tiny, and stop as soon as everyone stopped running), but this idea is the basis for the “reaction wheels” that the Hubble and many other space craft use to “aim” themselves.

  26. Freeman

    My, what a retentive little group. Marilyn knows what’s going on in the sky. She also knows most of us learned these basic things by third grade. Jeff Foxworthy won’t have those questions on his show because they’re too easy. One reader couldn’t see the stars for the light; you can’t see the light for the ego.

  27. R Lee

    My guess was the same as Frank R’s… She’s blinded by a life of ‘city sky’, which seems natural in her view… I will not question her aptitude, but remember; ‘Genius’ is defined as a person with an extremely high ‘IQ’ in Math, English, or Science… ¿as a persons IQ is equal to their intellectual age, divided by their birth age, Is it too funny to suggest that ‘Genius’ cannot exist beyond the age of 50 or 60, because each year a persons IQ is lowered?

  28. Alan

    It would take a long stretch of the imagination for me to believe MvS isn’t aware of the problem. IQ or not, she’s one smart cookie.

    However, I would like to see more from her in reference to this subject. I would love to see a long article from her covering this subject.

  29. Terry Phillips

    I actually have a fair amount of respect for Marilyn, but of course no matter the IQ, one can’t be aware of everything. I read all the 70 odd rants posted to Parade and S&T. I thought it might be effective to recast the question directly to her, so I submitted the following to her Parade site:
    The fully dark adapted human eye is able to perceive stars to the 6th magnitude. Due to light pollution, many amateur astronomers today are frustrated in their attempts to observe pristine skies. Assuming no clouds; How far from mid-town Manhattan would one have to travel tonight in order to see stars of magnitude 6?

    Who knows? Maybe she’ll answer it, HOWEVER, I’m seeing a great opportunity being missed here. A few hundred of us venting on a couple of forums will not accomplish much. Parade is read by tens of millions. Other regular contributors include David Levy and Neil deGrasse Tyson who happened to publish an excellent article this Sunday bemoaning the loss of interest in science among Americans and how we need to get back into the ballgame in space exploration. As far as I know, Parade has never done an article on our loss of the night sky. Now that Marilyn has sort of put her foot into it, maybe a few letters to the editor urging them to have a few of their distinguished contributors talk to each other, they could come up with a catching story that would make this issue visible for the first time to a really large audience.

  30. Andrew

    I agree that a high IQ does mean your smart. The exception is that Marilyn vos Savant may not even know the answers to those two questions and is trying to maintain her reputation by saying they are silly. She may also be over-estimating the intelligence of the public.

  31. Paul Curran

    Some of these questions were funny, but some show how BAD the American educational system has become. Ms Savant claims to be the smartest person in the world, but it seems her intellect failed to show her that some of these questions indicate deficiencies in our schools. Either that or she was just making fun of Americans and our educational system.

  32. Joanne Hailey

    It is a real tragedy that the young people of today are not and cannot become familiar with the sky from their back yards unless they live way out in the country.

    We have truly missed the boat on this issue. I present lots of astronomy lectures to school children and it amezes me how little they know about the sky.

    And if this lady thinks there has not been any change she is wrong…I have lived in a city since 1949 and I can see how much more light pollution there is, more urban sprawl and less of the night time sky visible…..

    Unless you have experienced the absolute wonder and sheer beauty of the night time sky you cannot be aware of what we have lost.

    Let’s turn this around!!!

  33. Michael

    Light pollution IS an ever growing problem. Perhaps Marilyn vos Savant is truly as ignorant of the problem as millions of other people are. As an amateur astronomer it saddens me to see a natural wonder like a clear dark sky disappearing. Future generations deserve better. In the words of the great man himself,
    “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
    and I’m not sure about the former.” – Albert Einstein

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