Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My life-long love affair with the night

Most people who know me well know that I am a night owl.  I have trouble falling asleep before midnight, even when I have to get up at 5 the next morning to get to the airport.

I won't try to explain why I prefer to stay up late, but I would like to take some time to talk about the night, and the night sky.

I started thinking about this subject on a plane trip, coming home to Albuquerque from a family visit in New York City.  It was close to midnight on New Year's Eve, and outside the sky was dark.  The ground, however, was lit up everywhere you looked.  Even the least populated areas had lights glittering somewhere, from roads or cars, or the houses that dotted the landscape.

We had just taken off from the Washington-Dulles airport, and were still fairly close to the ground, when I noticed the lights that lit up the roads below us reflected as a soft glow from the road itself.  But the lights themselves were pinpricks of light, meaning they were also shining directly up into the sky!

This light, besides being completely wasted, doesn't just shoot off harmlessly into space.  Just as our atmosphere scatters sunlight during the day, turning the whole sky a bright blue, it also scatters artificial light, and enough of it can cause "skyglow," blocking the light from stars and the Milky Way, and turning a gorgeous night sky into a bland grey wash.

I grew up in Youngstown, New York, a village of about 2,000 people, with uninhabited forest and farmland, not to mention the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, for miles in all directions.  But even our little village's streetlights were enough to hide the Milky Way from sight when looking up from my backyard.  I never really got to see it until a trip to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.  There aren't many bright lights on the ranch property, and the closest town with a movie theater is about an hour's drive away.

You'd think it'd be dark at night without those streetlights, or lights shining out of hundreds of windows on the block.  In a way, it is.  Until you look up.  A sky full of stars is anything but dark when you can actually see them all.  And a full moon casts plenty of light to navigate a hillside trail.

Of course, my favorite sky shows up just after midnight, with no moon at all.  On a night like that, the stars appear more numerous than grains of sand on the beach.  You see the Milky Way for what it is:  an insider's view of the galaxy we live in, stretched from horizon to horizon.  The brighter stars form shapes and patterns, and even if you don't know the constellations you mentally connect the brightest dots into triangles, snakes, or more abstract polygons.

I once took a week-long class on Mythology and the Night Sky from a local stargazer and poet, Luis Lopez.  He showed us all the major constellations we could see in the northern summer, and taught us the stories that cultures all over the world invented for them:  Scorpius, Libra, Cygnus, the Great Triangle, Ursa Major and Minor (the Big and Little Dippers), Draco, Sagittarius, Bootes, and more.  When I visit Ghost Ranch, I can still pick most of them out.  In Albuquerque, or even in Youngstown, only a few can be easily seen.

So put this on your bucket list.  Find somewhere, miles away from civilization, paved roads, movie theaters, Christmas decorations, airports, or stadiums.  Drive there, be it a campground, the side of the road, or Ghost Ranch.  Then look up.

Bringing an astronomer and telescope is optional, but highly recommended.


  1. One of my most memorable stargazing moments was at Ghost Ranch, the first reunion there, before you were born. It was incredible, beautiful, and breathtaking. Thanks for your words Robert.

  2. Thanks, Robert, for a beautiful read, science and a bit of poetry. When I first started coming out here from Michigan about 15 years ago, when Santa Fe and Albuquerque were growing, I'm sure, but not like they grow today, I so enjoyed the drive up to Santa Fe at night. I remember miles of darkness outside the car, into the desert for miles. Overhead, the stars, deeper than I'd ever seen and then, finally, a glow on the horizon, the lights of Santa Fe. It was quite a moment for a girl from southeastern Michigan. I know there are stretches of dark out there these days, but some nights it feels like the glow of Albuquerque ends right where the glow from Santa Fe begins. Thanks for this beautiful reminder to travel into the darkness to see the light.

  3. Great post, Robert. Having a clear view of the Milky Way is my main reason for camping. Does anyone really need another reason? I keep thinking I'll get involved with one of the dark sky projects. I love how dark New Mexico is.