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Astronomer's Bright Idea: Lights Out

College teacher proposes a voluntary, temporary blackout to spur a rediscovery of the stars. Laguna Beach's mayor says it might work there.

May 05, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

At the height of the energy crisis of 2001, astronomy professor Nick Contopoulos was hoping for a blackout. He had his fingers crossed that -- for just one night -- the lights would go out and people would step outside, look up and say, "Wow, look at all the stars."

It didn't happen. But Contopoulos is pushing a plan that could lead to a voluntary lights-out program in Orange County -- and he already has the ear of one local mayor.

What was once taken for granted -- a night sky ablaze with thousands of stars that would stir the mind and the heart toward poetry and exploration -- has been reduced, at least for city dwellers, to maybe 50 faint flickers bright enough to peek through the curtain of artificial light shining up from the planet's surface.

It's nothing short of tragic, Contopoulos said, that children are growing up without ever seeing the Milky Way except in textbooks. Many of his own students have no idea what he's talking about when he describes the thrill of looking at the heavens.

On one night, he suggests, all nonessential lights could be turned off for about two hours, allowing parents, kids and teachers to see how magnificent the night sky can be.

"I want that curiosity switch turned on. I want them to go 'Wow,' " Contopoulos said.

He'll start small, Contopoulos said, but he wonders: Why not a national dark-sky event?

He's tried it at Orange Coast College where he teaches.

Campus security and other officials agreed to turn off the lights in the parking lot and around campus early in March, except they somehow got the date wrong.

But he's not discouraged. He plans to try it again. Then, he said, he started thinking about taking the event beyond the Costa Mesa campus.

"Why not Laguna [Beach]?" he asked. "Why not Costa Mesa?"

Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman, a counselor at Orange Coast, heard Contopoulos speaking at a luncheon and got interested.

"We've created a virtual denuding of the sky with light pollution," Iseman said. "Now, we have to take our kids to the desert to see stars."

Iseman said she supports a dark-sky event in Laguna Beach, perhaps in November, that would allow residents to see and learn about the stars.

But she also wants to introduce a lighting ordinance that would reduce light pollution year-round.

Contopoulos is quick to point out that he's not breaking new ground with his proposal. The problem with light pollution has been a hot topic in the scientific community for years. The International Dark-Sky Assn., based in Tucson, has been promoting light efficiency and battling light pollution since 1988.

But "in the last couple of years, the movement has exploded," said Liz Alvarez, the group's associate director. The group spent a number of years learning what the problem is and how to fix it, she said, and convincing people that it's not just an astronomy problem. It's a street lighting problem, an energy problem and a security problem.

Contopoulos strikes again and again at the irrationality of lights that shine upward instead of toward the ground, where illumination is needed. On a short walk around the campus, he points to a tall light pole, with a big globe housing the light bulb.

With shielding at the bottom, the light is going everywhere except where it's needed, he said. The logic of such design escapes him, as it does other advocates of efficient lighting.

He petitioned the school for lamps that are waist high and throw light down, on the paths, not into the sky. They've been installed, but only around his office and the school planetarium next door.

Contopoulos shrugs. He's happy for whatever dent he can make.

On a broader scale, similar progress is being made, Alvarez said. "We started talking to city and street engineers and they discovered that the same things that astronomers need to help preserve the dark skies are practices that help visibility in general."

She adds that if we are going to preserve our window to the universe, "we'd better start looking at what we're doing."

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