Sometimes, I lament living in the inner city. And when I say sometimes, I mean frequently. I stumbled upon this graphic recently on the internet, illustrating the Bortle scale. Originally published in Sky & Telescope magazine, the Bortle scale is a tool for amateur astronomers to gauge how good an observing site is. The scale goes from 1 at darkest, to 9 at brightest. I think it makes my point quite well…

The sky outside my window is a very definite 9. I certainly can’t see anything dimmer than 4th magnitude. Actually, I can rarely even see anything that dim. There are no recognisable constellations from my window, except possibly for Orion. I dread the day when I’m at an outreach event and hear a kid ask me what a constellation is. Or even what a star is. I fear that day may someday come.

On the other hand, I’m one of the people lucky enough to have seen a truly dark sky. A 1 on the Bortle scale. The kind of place where on a clear night, you can find roads and paths by starlight. Where if the sky is overcast, you literally cannot see your hand when you’re holding it just inches from your face. Pitch blackness.

True darkness is a rare and refreshing commodity. Particularly living in the midst of one of the most light polluted places on Earth. I should really join the International Dark Skies Association. People shouldn’t cut themselves off from the stars. To our ancestors, the night sky was always there. A dark starlit sky was nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps if people were more humbled by the vista of stars across the night sky, they might take themselves a little less seriously. It’s not so easy to get so caught up in your own little world when you realise just how small your world truly is. Perhaps humility like that would be a good thing for everyone concerned…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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8 Responses to Darkness?

  1. invaderxan says:

    Yeah, it’s a pity you have such harsh temperatures to cope with. Other than that, stargazing from your corner of the world would be just idea. Though a nice large window, a dark room, and a mug of hot chocolate would still give a dramatic view, I’m sure!

  2. invaderxan says:

    I know, right? So jealous right now… :P

  3. invaderxan says:

    Ahhh, the 3rd level. I miss the rural skies I used to know…

  4. invaderxan says:

    Getting to see the Milky Way stretching across the southern sky was one of the most magnificent sights I’ve ever beheld. It’s just a pity that it was the wrong time of year/month for me to see the galactic centre. That would have been just wonderful!

  5. atomicat says:

    I’m so lucky to live where I live… three hours north of Winnipeg in a place that rates a 1. Complete isolation with the nearest town of 5,000 being a good half hour drive south. Years ago I had a friend and his kid up here and was incredibly saddened that at the age of 12, this was the first time he’d really seen any stars. Horrible.
    The real problem with stargazing up here is that in the summer there’s damn little real dark, and in the winter it goes down to -40. Sometimes, but an average of -15 isn’t very great either.

  6. tatjna says:

    Haha, I can’t even see where NZ is on that map.

  7. sandalfon says:

    On road trips I have seen the sky about the 3rd level, and when visiting parts of Montana (just to the right of the cluster of lights in the top left corner of the US) I have seen it at the number 1 magnitude and I treasured it).
    I live amongst that same cluster of lights, near Seattle, Washington, the top left corner of America and in to the right just where the cluster breaks a bit, that area is part of the mountains and east into a desert.

  8. 6_bleen_7 says:

    During the summer I’m lucky if I can see fourth-magnitude starts on a “clear” night. The winter is better, but then it’s nearly always cloudy at night.
    The best sky I’ve ever seen was from Old Faithful (elev. 2250 m) in Yellowstone National Park. The Milky Way was strewn magnificently from horizon to horizon, and I could see thousands of stars.

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