The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Lightby Paul Bogard
The "terrific ... moving, poetic, immersive, multifaceted, and thought-provoking" book (Publishers Weekly) that will open your eyes to the night.
A brilliantly starry night is one of nature's most thrilling wonders. Yet in our world of nights as bright as day, most of us no longer experience true darkness. Eight out of ten Americans born today won't/b>/i>
The "terrific ... moving, poetic, immersive, multifaceted, and thought-provoking" book (Publishers Weekly) that will open your eyes to the night.
A brilliantly starry night is one of nature's most thrilling wonders. Yet in our world of nights as bright as day, most of us no longer experience true darkness. Eight out of ten Americans born today won't ever live where they can see the Milky Way. And exposure to artificial light at night has been cited as a factor in health concerns ranging from poor sleep to cancer.
In his gorgeous debut, THE END OF NIGHT, Paul Bogard travels the globe to find the night, blending personal narrative, natural history, health, science, and folklore to shed light on darkness. Showing exactly what we've lost, what we have left, and what we might hope to regain, he attempts nothing less than a restoration of how we see the spectacularly primal, wildly dark night sky.
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Read an Excerpt
The End of Night
Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light
By Paul Bogard
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Paul Bogard
All rights reserved.
From a Starry Night to a Streetlight
It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.
—VINCENT VAN GOGH (1888)
The brightest beam of light on Earth shoots from the apex of the Luxor casino's black pyramid in Las Vegas, thirty-nine brilliant blended xenon lamps, each six feet tall and three feet wide (the greatest number of lamps they could fit in the space), reflecting off mirrors and marking, like a push-pin on the night map of the known world, the brightest city on earth. New York, London, and Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, and a slew of cities in China—with their larger geographies and populations—may send more light into space overall than this single desert city in the American Southwest. But the "overall" qualifier is important, for it would be foolish to think there is any brighter real estate in the world than the Las Vegas Strip.
Standing on the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Bellagio Drive, I am immersed in artificial light, subsumed in the accumulated glow from the city's thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of homes, encased by peach-colored high- pressure sodium from the city's fifty thousand streetlights, most of which I'd seen from the plane just an hour ago. From the airport the Strip is only a short drive—the Luxor's beam on its south end meets you almost immediately—and in no time you are swallowed by light. Casinos rise bathed by floods, with ten million bulbs illuminating their glittering, flashing, changing signs. Digital screens and LED billboards call out from every corner, SEE OUR SHOWS! RENT OUR ROOMS! PLAY OUR SLOTS! Red lights, purple lights, green lights, blue—imported palm trees march past the illuminated iron footings of the Tour Eiffel of the Paris, Las Vegas casino, the tower drenched with gold-yellow light from base to tip-top, an exact replica of the real though half the size. A steady stream of headlights bob past, trailed by rafts of bright red tails. On a ruby-colored billboard truck, a blonde in a white bikini smiles. "HOT BABES, Direct to You." Most of the lights want to sell you something, and the Strip has the feel of one big outdoor mall, with canned music piped in and the natural desert pushed out. Some signs are brighter than others, some buildings more brightly lit, but everything is illuminated: The ground at my feet, the clothing on my body, the bare skin of my hands and arms and face, no surface remains uncoated—even the air itself seems full of light—and I walk through its presence as though pushing through an invisible scentless mist. In these first decades of the new century we live in a world that is brighter than ever before in history and growing brighter every year. If any city reflects that fact, it's Vegas.
Which is one reason I have come here to go stargazing. Rob Lambert, president of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society (there is such a thing, yes), has agreed to meet at the famous fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel, saying, "I've got my telescopes in the back of my truck, so it will be no problem to bring them along." We may not have any luck—there can't be any better example than the Las Vegas Strip of Bortle Class 9, where "the entire sky is brightly lit, even at the zenith." But it's worth a try.
I wander over to the Bellagio, the tall curved casino set back from the reflecting pool housing the fountains, and when Lambert arrives we joke that we have chosen a popular spot, that we will be joined in our stargazing by hundreds of others—though they are here for comedians, magicians, musicians ... and fountains—different stars than those we have come to see.
"People don't think about Las Vegas as a place to come look at the stars," Lambert tells me, "but we do quite a bit of outreach. Our slogan is, 'The greatest stars of Las Vegas can't be seen from the Strip.' Our club membership is only about a hundred, but when we have our star parties we have anywhere from seventy-five to five hundred fifty public."
Lambert takes out his laser pointer and cuts a thin green beam toward Orion—or, rather, the two bright stars from Orion we can see. "Okay, so that's Rigel on the bottom and Betelgeuse on the top left." He moves the laser lower to the left. "And there's Sirius, the brightest star in the sky." At first, I'm surprised we can see any stars tonight—this is my first visit to the Strip, and I had imagined the entire sky might be washed out by the lights. "Well, that's almost true," says Lambert. "When you consider that the stars we can see tonight are brighter than ninety-eight to ninety-nine percent of the stars our eyes could see, you start to realize what we're missing."
Behind us the water cannons begin going off, rumbling like distant thunder. The music changes to a kind of weird Italian carnival tune, coordinated with the booming cannons and joined by crashing cymbals. Someone nearby says, "I feel like breaking into song!" When I look to see who said this, I realize Lambert and I have turned so we face away from the fountain show, the only two in the crowd. "The winter Milky Way is actually over us," says Lambert, still looking at the sky, "but you can't see it ..."
We agree to walk down the Strip to the Luxor, and as we start our trek south, Lambert tells me that he didn't get started with astronomy until after he turned fifty, that he'd heard some people at work talking about "star parties" and wondered what they were. Next thing he knew he was watching a friend's telescope at such a party, he says, and telling observers what they were seeing. "He had to go help someone with their scope and so he asked me to show people M13 through his telescope. So I said, sure, what's M13? He quickly told me M13 is a globular cluster in the constellation Hercules that is twenty-five thousand light-years away and made up of about seven hundred fifty thousand stars. And so for ninety minutes I told people everything I knew about M13, and absolutely had a ball."
We pass a man blasting solos on a cheap electric guitar, and further down the street the ghost of Keith Moon banging the hell out of a drum set, dozens of nude trading cards littering the sidewalk at our feet. On every block people are shouting into microphones, straining to be heard. Packs of partiers bump past, yelling their thoughts, half of them transfixed by cell phone screens, half staring, dazed at billboards pulsing light-emitting diodes (LEDs), and I'm reminded of how urban developers call signs like these "bug lights"—so bright they draw gawking crowds.
I ask Lambert about the appeal of looking at the night sky. "One of the things that I share with people is that, regardless of what your beliefs about creation are, it's still happening, there are stars being born, there are planets being born, stuff is still going on. For example, our 'challenge object' this month was Hubble's variable nebula, which changes all the time. You can look at it this year, look at it next year, and it's going to be different. And so you actually see things happening up there."
Not from downtown Las Vegas you don't, nor from any downtown in the developed world. While the lights of the night sky are far brighter than anything humans have ever created, all save one are so far away we see them as faint, if we see them at all. Instead, at night, we see the lights of our own making. While few cities have a space as intensely lit as the Las Vegas Strip, it's not just the Strip that makes Las Vegas bright. Here as in every city or suburb, it's the accumulated glow from an array of different sources that has utterly changed our experience of night.
During a recent Earth Hour—the worldwide movement in which cities are encouraged to turn off some of their lighting for an hour to draw attention to energy use— Lambert says he was driving on US Route 95 and was surprised at what he saw. "I was on 95 basically going from the north side of town to the south side, and this is where 95 is elevated above the valley. But when they cut the lights on the Strip there were so many streetlights that it didn't really affect the sky quality. You could tell that the Strip went dark because the hotels were no longer shining, but the quality of the sky didn't change."
In cities all over the world by far the greatest sources of light in our nights come from parking lots and streetlights (and, when in use, sports field lighting). While individually each streetlight might not seem so bright, it's together that they make their mark—in the United States alone, some sixty million cobrahead streetlights blaze all night, every night, most still drop- lens high-pressure sodiums glaring their trademark pink-peach. We light our parking lots—think shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, stadiums, industrial areas, and the like—primarily with metal-halide lamps emitting intense white light. Add to these two sources a mix of auto dealerships, gas stations, convenience stores, driving ranges, sports practice fields, billboards, and residential neighborhoods and you have any given city's recipe for bright.
In general, bright lights lead to more bright lights, as with one corner gas station trying to outdo another. If you imagine a single light in an otherwise dark room, then turning on other lights around it, you see how the first light— bright in the context of the dark room—is now swamped, and in order to be noticed would have to become brighter. In Las Vegas, the ironic truth is that were the city's streetlights less numerous and less bright, the casino lights would actually appear more impressive.
Still, it's hard not to be impressed by the Luxor's beam, equal to the light of more than forty billion candles. In 1688, when the king of France decided to make a dramatic show of his power by illuminating Versailles, the Sun King shining in all his glory, all he could muster was twenty-four thousand candles. Granted, that is a lot of candles, and Versailles must have been beautiful—which is a word that at least for me is not so quickly applied to the Luxor's beam. But the intensity of this casino light is undeniable, and I can't help but stare. Though I'm staring too at what looks at first like sparkling confetti floating in the beam's white column.
"Bats and birds," Lambert says. "Feeding at their own buffet."
He's right. Dozens of bats and birds, drawn from desert roosts and caves, swooping and fluttering amid the casino's buffet of insects and moths attracted to the light. And how convenient, yes? Maybe not. In addition to the destruction wrought on the insects and moths, the Luxor's beam like a siren's song draws the bats and birds from their natural feeding habitat, causing them to expend so much energy flying to the casino that by the time they return from the journey they have nothing left to feed their young.
The sight reminds me of Ellen Meloy's essay "The Flora and Fauna of Las Vegas" and its concluding image: "Out from nowhere," Meloy explains as she stands outside the Mirage watching the casino's volcano erupt, "a single, frantic female mallard duck, her underside lit to molten gold by the tongues of flame, tries desperately to land in the volcano's moat ... Unable to land in this perilous jungle of people, lights, and fire, the duck veers down the block toward Caesars Palace. With a sudden ffzzt and a shower of sparks barely distinguishable from the ambient neon, the duck incinerates in the web of transmission line slicing through a seventy-foot gap in the Strip high-rises."
So bright and so recent—in evolutionary terms the Las Vegas we know today appeared in a sudden flash. The Luxor beam has only been on since 1993, several of the largest, brightest casinos have been built even since then, and the city's longest living residents were born before the first casino signs were illuminated in the mid-1940s. In less than a human lifetime what was almost an entirely dark place grew to the brightest place in the world, its population skipping from eight thousand in 1940 to sixty thousand in 1960 to more than two million today. "Welcome to Las Vegas," reads the famous sign, but only since 1959. Meloy's mallard, the bats and birds caught in the Luxor's beam? In terms of time to adapt, they've never had a chance.
As early as the mid-nineteenth century, some European cities were experimenting with electric light on their streets. As I walk past the Paris, Las Vegas, I think of an 1844 drawing showing a demonstration of arc lighting in the Place de la Concorde of Paris, France, cutting like a train's headlight through an otherwise jungle-dark night, catching in its glare the Place's fountains and a crowd in evening gowns and suits, some grasping umbrellas as protection against the light. Arc lighting was simply too bright for many uses, the first type of lighting that could truly be mentioned in the same sentence as the sun. (And it wasn't too bright simply because people had never seen anything like it. The moment I see a small arc light blazing away at the electricity museum in Christchurch, England, my immediate wish is for an arc welding mask—this was light that clearly could destroy your eyes.) As a result, it wasn't until 1870 that several European capitals installed arc lights on some main thoroughfares. While the intensity of these lights was so great they had to be placed on towers high above the streets, their arrival was met with fascination and pleasure by most (many cities in the United States barged ahead with their installation, for example). They were, it seemed, an answer to our prayers.
The idea had always been to banish darkness from night. As far back as the early eighteenth century, proposals had been made to illuminate the entire city of Paris using some kind of artificial light set high on a tower. The most famous of these was the Sun Tower proposed by Jules Bourdais for the 1889 Paris Exposition that would stand at the city's center near Pont Neuf and cover all of Paris with arc lights. Unfortunately for Bourdais (and fortunately for the rest of the world), his proposal was turned down in favor of one by a certain Gustave Eiffel. But even Eiffel's tower now has spotlights on the top, to the delight of some and the disgust of others.
Understanding how bright arc lights were, it makes sense how ready the world was for the incandescent light bulb. A report from the 1881 International Exposition of Electricity in Paris reads: "we normally imagine electric light to be a blindingly bright light, whose harshness hurts the eyes ... Here, however, we have a light source that has somehow been civilized." The change affected not only street lighting, of course. Arc lights had been entirely impractical for domestic houses, but as Jill Jonnes explains in Empires of Light, when incandescent bulbs arrived, wealthy, cultivated women in floor-length, rustling dresses delighted in showing their friends how if you just turned a knob on the wall, the room's clear incandescent bulbs began almost magically to glow, casting an even, clear light. Unlike candles, the electric light did not burn down or become smoky. Unlike gaslight, there was no slight odor, no eating up of a room's oxygen, no wick to trim or smoked-up glass globes to be cleaned.
It was in order to supply domestic customers like these that Thomas Edison in 1882 opened his first power station in lower Manhattan. By 1920 in America, electric service reached 35 percent of urban and suburban homes, and by World War II more than 90 percent of Americans had electric light. Still, it wasn't until FDR's insistence on the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 that electric light began to reach many areas of the rural United States, and not until well into the 1950s could one reasonably say most Americans enjoyed the benefits of electricity. Since that time, we have simply turned that knob on the wall farther and farther to the right, spreading electric light from city to city, town to town, up onto mountaintops and down into hollers, across the plains and into the desert, from coast to coast.
I sometimes try to imagine living in a city before electricity. How quiet pre- electric nights would have been without cars or trucks or taxis, without any internal combustion engines at all. No radios, televisions, or computers. No cell phones, no headphones, nor anything to plug those headphones into if you had them. How deserted the city with most of the population locked inside their homes, the night left to fears of crime, sickness, and immorality, and best avoided if one could. Finally, and most strangely—the biggest difference from that time to ours—not one single, solitary electric light.
Excerpted from The End of Night by Paul Bogard. Copyright © 2014 Paul Bogard. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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Meet the Author
Paul Bogard teaches creative nonfiction at James Madison University. He is the editor of the anthology Let There Be Night: Testimony on Behalf of the Dark.
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As soon as I found out about this book I pre-ordered it. It has not disappointed! Immediately you can see the care and time that went into writing and organizing this book. The chapters are organized like the Bortle Scale to mimic that journey from the brightest places to the darkest. And when I found that out, it was a discovery that added even more to an already fantastic book. Each chapter holds unique experiences and interviews with people I never would have heard from otherwise. And each of them plays such an important part in this issue. The interviews share such insight into the problem of light pollution, but at the same time stresses the ease with which the problem could be solved. What's even more astounding is the way Bogard is able to make a connection with the night sky which in turn passes over to the reader, giving you an urge to drive out to the middle of nowhere to see those sights while at the same moment inspiring you to do something about the fact that you DO have to drive out so far. This book is not only informative and educational it is also inspirational and engaging to the point that you cannot stay seated after you read it. You have to do something about it! This is a book that will live on my nightstand. And most definitely a book that I will recommend every time I discuss books with others. A big THANK YOU! to Paul Bogard for writing this and sending it out into the world to be a wake-up call for the importance of dark and an inspiration to make some much-needed changes.
I heard Paul Bogard read passages from this book in Vegas. I, like most people who attended this special presentation, purchased the book. I am chapters into this book and am inspired. Paul writes beautifully about a topic that is important, about an issue that can be addressed with reasonable easily executed actions. I would highly recommend this book, and highly recommend that we all look up at the stars -- soon - before the twinkle and sparkle fades.
Important topic, well worth reading about, but I really thought that the author had about enough material to fill about half of this book. Too much of the book was filled with conversations, viewings, etc. similar to ones that he had described before.
I checked this book out from the library, thoroughly enjoyed it, and plan to buy a copy to keep for myself. I happily recommend this book to everyone
This book was truly thought provoking and contained a great deal of useful information in thinking about and discussing light pollution. It was a quick read and made me want to read more about the topic. To be honest, it dragged a little in a few places when the author is describing walks around major cities London and Paris at night, but I understood the point he was making so I kept reading.