DECEMBER 2006 / JANUARY 2007 – NO. 11

Our Dark Skies

by Arthur Upgren


And God said, Let there be light:  and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good:
and God divided the light from the darkness.

— Genesis I:  3-4

One does not have to go far in the Bible to find light equated with goodness. Most, if not all, of our languages are steeped in the equivalence, and its obverse, that darkness is a manifestation of evil. The light at the end of the tunnel, a sunny disposition, a shady deal, a bright child, a dark thought — all are expressions to help us reaffirm the association of the good guys with the white hats and the bad guys with the black hats.

Any thesaurus shows for light a number of synonyms, such as brightness, radiance, sparkle, and splendor. As a verb, light matches animate and shine. Darkness can bring us gloom, murk, and dead of night; or ignorant, mysterious, and arcane; or drab and dull. Then we can become further enlightened by proceeding on to bad, corrupt, evil, satanic, cheerless, ominous, brooding, sinister, scowling, threatening, and even Stygian.

Those of us who seek to keep the skies dark meet with millennia of associations of these kinds. Where do we get off preaching the virtues of the dark? Why do we fight the ill effects of light pollution caused by everything from upward-turned street lamps to recklessly bright cities? Shouldn't we leave that insidious underworld to Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky at one remove (never mind that Herman Melville's great evil whale with a twisted jaw was white)? Indeed it was Lovecraft who commented in his essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature," that "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Darkness is one of the fears he traces, one felt by many to harbor the unknown.                 


But many are the thoughts that pass through our minds when we look at that rare and rarer thing, the dark moonless night sky. This great empty dome, strewn with stars and riven by the paleness of the Milky Way stretching from one horizon to the other, has always been associated with heaven, God's abode. We read further in the good book that God went on to make a firmament and call it Heaven; He divided the day from the night, to be governed by the Sun, and the Moon and stars, respectively. Why did he do that?

The nyctophobes among us might suppose that night was the creation of Satan, not God. God could just as easily have located us in a double or multiple star system, between two or more great suns providing us with perpetual daylight. But in Nightfall, the novella that brought him his first literary success at the age of 21, Isaac Asimov posited a planet in a sextuple star system, which bathed it in perpetual daylight but for once in a thousand years when all six stars lined up to one side and the calamity of night struck briefly on the other. Out of fear and panic, the civilization tore itself apart. We might have developed in such a system, with eternal daylight, and the circadian rhythm of light and darkness to which Earth's children have evolved and adapted might never have occurred.

We earthlings have always experienced alternating rhythms of daylight and darkness, extremes in light and dark as we have nowhere else in our experience. Even 570 million years ago, when single-celled life first and suddenly burst forth into large multicelled life forms — fish, trilobites, and other marine life — the length of the day was just a few hours shorter than it is today. All creatures since that time have known day and night about as we know it now.

The difference in light intensity between the daytime sky and the sky on a moonless night is more than ten million to one. No other stimuli come remotely close to subjecting other sensory input to such wide-ranging yet normal variations as day and night do to our eyesight; there are no hours-long periods of noise alternating with quiet interludes of such difference, nor periodic variations affecting smell, taste, or feel. Nor does our natural world shuttle between such wide extremes in air pollution or any other kind of atmospheric dislocation. Day and night are and always will be a normal and fundamental part of our total experience. To shun such an indelible heritage as the rhythm of night and day for one of eternal brightness is to evade the nature that has been created for us.


We, most of us, no longer subscribe to the claustrophobia that C.S. Lewis discusses in The Discarded Image, his introduction to medieval life and literature. The ordered medieval cosmos he describes was too orderly for our post-Copernican tastes; we know of uncertainties such as the Big Bang and the weird peculiar objects thrown up by it, that now reveal themselves to the Hubble Space Telescope, and we are aware that we still don't know the size or age of our universe.

I sometimes wish that I could once again see the sky as I did as a young child before a lifetime of study provided some of the answers. What if the crescent Moon really were a silvery thing only several feet in size upon which I could perch and make a wish? Might not the stars be displaced Christmas-tree lights twinkling up there, instead of seething spheres of overheated hydrogen gas?

Can this childlike wonder ever be recaptured? Were we closer to the stars in the days before night lighting led to the all-pervasive baleful orange glare now blotting out the wondrous Milky Way? The stars haven't gone away but we have; we have left them, cluttering our skies with light and filth. Perhaps we may still return our nights to their natural and proper darkness, and perhaps when we do, the stars will be there to welcome us home.