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Dark Skies

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Dark Skies

Scientists and educators explain why they think dark skies are important.

NASA
Marshall Space Flight Center

Back to the Science@NASA story "The Fading Milky Way"

Are kids who never see the stars less likely to become scientists? Do frustrated stargazers lose perspective about our place in the cosmos? Do humans have an "astronomy gene" -- a psychological trait of some sort inherited from cavemen who stared at the stars for pleasure -- that needs expression? Why can't we simply replace the sky with a planetarium

We put those questions to several astronomers and educators.

Dr. Brian Greene, Columbia University physicist, author of the best selling book, "The Elegant Universe" and one of the most articulate spokespersons for the Superstring Theory of the Cosmos:

"I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly--or ever-- gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe. And as the astounding vastness of the universe becomes obscured, there is a throwback to a vision of a universe that essentially amounts to earth, or one's country, or state or city. Perspective becomes myopic. But a clear night sky and a little instruction allows anyone to soar in mind and imagination to the farthest reaches of an enormous universe in which we are but a speck. And there is nothing more exhilarating and humbling than that."

Dr. Tony Mezzacappa, astrophysicist at the Oak Ridge National laboratories worries that the disappearance of the milky way deprives observers of a unique perspective. "If one is able to see only a dozen or so stars, all rather evenly distributed across the sky...if that wide expanse of hazy starlight we call the milky way is invisible, then how can the casual observer possibly gain an intuitive feel for the earth as a part of this greater whole?"

Dr. David Fields, Director of an East Tennessee observatory wonders, "Do we need the vastness of nighttime space to recognize the fragility and beauty of our earth? And do we need to see nearby stars that might have planetary systems in order to be reminded that we may not be alone in the universe?"

Dr. Kermit Duckett, University of Tenssessee Physicist and astronomer says, "The discoveries provided through technology and the sense of direct personal and visual observation go hand in hand. . We are losing that personal tie experienced during the 60's decade with the accelerated space exploration program. We are losing some of the awe of our being whenever we cannot look up and see some of the wonders of our universe."

Elizabeth Alvarez, associate director of the International Dark Skies Association, emphasizes that science and math are not the only disciplines that have been and WILL BE affected by mankind's view of the heavens. Poets, artists, sculptures and musicians have down through the ages drawn inspiration from their view of the sky. Humans, she stresses, need access to that reservoir of enlightenment

Timothy Ferris, author of 10 best-selling books on astronomy and the cosmos, and featured scientist/writer in the PBS special, "The Creation of the Universe", says, "The loss of the night sky is most troubling for children. Whole generations of kids in cities and suburbs are growing up seldom if ever having seen the milky way and what a sky full of thousands of stars look like.

"People often describe to me in glowing terms their experience in viewing the night time sky as if they'd seen something extraordinarily exotic... something akin to observing Victoria Falls or the south pole. And I'm afraid that's the case for many people...that they can count on the fingers of one hand the times they've seen a good night's sky."

"All human cultures no matter how primitive have felt it important to tell stories about the stars and about the nature and the origin of the universe as a whole. So there's something about astronomy that is deeply engrained in human culture, going as far back as music, dance and poetry."

What can't you just replace the night sky with a planetarium? Dr. Ferris says, "you can replace the real with the artificial in many instance, but what kind of a world would you have? Nothing can match the grandeur, the wonderment that comes from starring up into THE real star filled canopy above and realizing that you are a part of that creation."

Back to the Science@NASA story "The Fading Milky Way"


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