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Starry, starry night? Not so much anymore

All that artificial light pollution is obscuring the magic and mysteries of the heavens at night

Artificial light has been growing as malls and shopping centers contribute to nighttime light pollution.
Artificial light has been growing as malls and shopping centers contribute to nighttime light pollution.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

WESTFORD – When Tim Brothers was just a kid, growing up in Southampton, he was fascinated by the evening sky, casting his eyes heavenward on warm summer nights and taking in the celestial wonders of twinkling stars and orbing planets.

Like a lot of little kids, he wanted to be an astronaut.

He was fascinated by the televised images from Florida of the space shuttle blasting off into orbit.

He was the kind of boy who would wander outside on hot August evenings.

He would look up. He would wonder. And he would be transported.

“Maybe I didn’t understand the Milky Way,” Brothers said. “I can’t say for sure. But I was always amazed and blown away. And just kind of mesmerized by the magic of the unknown of the space above at night.”

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And now that magic is being obscured.

That nighttime gaze into the heavens has been muted.

We’re losing the dark sky.

And Tim Brothers wants to do something about it.

Tim Brothers, an MIT astronomer and manager of the MIT Wallace Astrophysical Observatory in Westford.  He's worried that 85 percent of the people in the US cannot see the Milky Way at night because of light pollution.
Tim Brothers, an MIT astronomer and manager of the MIT Wallace Astrophysical Observatory in Westford. He's worried that 85 percent of the people in the US cannot see the Milky Way at night because of light pollution.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Even in the 12 years that I’ve been here, since 2009, we used to see fireflies regularly in the summer,” he said. “You would see swarms of them. And you should. This is a 1,300-acre protected property. Most of the lights are turned off at night. Last year, I saw no fireflies. This year, I saw a couple, but not a lot.”

Brothers is a technical instructor and the observatory manager at the MIT Wallace Astrophysical Observatory.

He’s also one of the leading voices fighting to save the nighttime skies from increasingly strong and bright man-made light that is washing out the heavens.

That fight is being waged through a bill on Beacon Hill introduced by state Senator Cynthia Creem and state Representative Sean Garballey.

Among other things, it would require publicly funded projects to use fully shielded exterior lighting for new projects or replacement installations and install lighting only where needed. It would provide financial incentives for low-wattage street lights, especially those dimmed or shut off at night.

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In other words, it would aim high to bring back the dark sky.

“I can see the difference,” Creem told me. “The skies are not as clear as they used to be. I remember the Little Dipper. We all do. We learned about the stars at school and we could go out and look at the sky. And now things are just not as clear.”

All of this is a fight worth waging, as the amount of artificial nighttime light has been growing by at least 2 percent a year, by some estimates. At that rate, specialists say, light pollution will double in less than 50 years.

Want a clear, real-world example?

“The night sky in Saint-Remy, France, which once inspired the iconic van Gogh painting, ‘Starry Night,’ now suffers from so much light pollution that the Milky Way is virtually imperceptible,” astrophysicist Kelsey Johnson wrote in a 2019 New York Times opinion piece.

Want another, closer-to-home indicator?

When was the last time you saw a firefly?

“We’re seeing our entire nighttime environment awash in this ambient glow of artificial light,” Brothers said. “It’s called light pollution.”

By some estimates that pollution — artificial light that shines up into the atmosphere, dulling all those starry nights — amounts to a waste of energy worth as much as $3 billion.

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“I’m not going to take it personally if you don’t care about stars,” Brothers said. “But there are a lot of other reasons you should care about light pollution. Maybe it’s health. The reason the bugs aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing — feeding or living or pollinating — is the same reason we’re not doing the right thing.

“Our biological functions are flipped upside down because our circadian rhythm is disrupted. And that’s the direct effect of light pollution that’s not supposed to be there.”

Tim Brothers at the MIT Wallace Astrophysical Observatory.  Massachusetts is the only state in the Northeast without regulations restricting outdoor lighting. Brothers wants to do something about it.
Tim Brothers at the MIT Wallace Astrophysical Observatory. Massachusetts is the only state in the Northeast without regulations restricting outdoor lighting. Brothers wants to do something about it. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Think about all those motion-detector lights that flash when a neighborhood dog inadvertently triggers them.

Or lights atop poles at your local shopping mall.

Or car dealerships whose forest of lights resemble Fenway Park on a Friday night, when it’s time for another big-sale bonanza.

And it’s only gotten worse.

“The rate of change is so fast,” Brothers said. “And there’s not a lot of room to breathe between a pristine sky and the point where you lose vision of the Milky Way. I mention the Milky Way a lot because it’s a really great canary in the coal mine. If you’ve lost the Milky Way, or you’re even approaching that point, that means there’s a fair amount of light pollution in your environment.”

That doesn’t mean going back to pitch-black nights.

And it doesn’t mean turning back the clock to the time before Thomas Edison patented and commercialized the miracle of the incandescent light bulb.

“We’re not saying get rid of light,” Brothers explained. “We’re not saying we should live in pitch black. We are developed. We want to have a night life. We want people to navigate safely. But we’re actually arguing: Let’s make it safer by not blinding people with glare.

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“Light should have a purpose. It should not be there to help fund the electric company.”

As we spoke, Tim Brothers, 41, wearing a black mask and a plaid short-sleeve shirt, showed me the wonders of his observatory, a classroom of sorts with a giant light dome whose retractable roof takes four minutes to roll away.

There are robotic telescopes and cameras that pull in images of asteroids and exo-planets, any planet orbiting a star.

“We like the oohs and aahs,” he said, recounting the reaction of his visitors. “That’s the best part of the job, especially when little kids are here.”

In fact, there’s a bit of the little kid he once was that still lives within him.

He can relate to his young visitors whose eyes widen and whose mouths fall agape as they search the heavens from this verdant piece of land at the observatory.

He knows just how they feel.

He once felt the wonder those kids feel as they take in the celestial wonderland.

Those are the images he’s working to protect.

“We’re not asking for a perfect thing,” Brothers told me. “But could we restore it to what it was a few years ago? For the towns that had the Milky Way a few years ago, can we get back to that?”

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As a wise man of words once wrote: The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

So don’t forget to turn off the lights.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.