by Ralf Kelman
Would all former fluorescent babies please raise your hands? If you were born in an urban centre anytime after the ‘50s, you probably started your journey in a fluorescent-lit incubator facing a world of artificial light and rapidly diminishing natural darkness. Historically, the first alarm bells about light pollution began ringing when architect and astronomer Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) complained that newly installed gas lighting in the Piazza San Marco in Venice spoiled the subtle and romantic effect of moonlight on the popular square.
From the late 1800s to the 1950s, electric carbon arc and incandescent street lighting significantly changed the world’s urban lightscapes, but it still had limited impact on the rural environment. To this point in human history, astronomers had not yet experienced a serious impediment to their ability to see the stars. Subsequently, the mercury and sodium vapour high-intensity discharge lamps eliminated the softer, colourful glow of the age of incandescence and neon, and moved humanity into the glare of an over-lit post-WWII era.
In the late ‘60s, many astronomers realized they had to join forces in a fight to save the dark sky. The dark skies that the international astronomy community long depended on are rapidly disappearing. Major observatories like Mount Palomar and Kits Peak are desperately seeking solutions, having become victims of their own silence; not one observatory was willing to admit that it had a problem for fear it would lose key research funding.
At the UN Habitat Conference at Jericho Beach in Vancouver in 1976, one of the focuses included the negative impact of manufactured light on human settlements. As a non-governmental, forum guest speaker, along with Buckminster Fuller, Mother Teresa, Margaret Mead, and others, I hammered home the emerging, global issue of light pollution. Working with film producer and site chief Al Clapp, I also illuminated the site with heritage neon and incandescent fixtures and took delegates on light tours of the city. This major, international event planted the seed for a series of ongoing UN initiatives and reflected the spirit of newly formed Greenpeace, media and culture guru Marshall McLuhan’s teachings, and a number of UBC urban planners, including professor Peter Oberlander.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Habitat. In June of 2006, 8,000 to 10,000 UN delegates and experts will attend World Urban Forum 3 in Vancouver. Leading up to the main conference, a number of programs and events, sponsored by UBC and SFU, will take place. Future issues of Common Ground will feature more information about this huge, international event on global sustainability.
Another important light-related anniversary of note is the marking of the 100 years since Albert Einstein’s pioneering discoveries in quantum mechanics and his landmark discovery of the equation E=MC2, including an alternative theory of light. To learn more about Einstein’s groundbreaking work from 1905 onward, I recommend the excellent article One Hundred Years of Uncertainty (Op Ed), published in The New York Times on April 8 this year. PBS has also produced a great documentary special on his extraordinary life and work.
In Vancouver this past September, the H. R. MacMillian Science Centre opened Our Vanishing Sky, an exhibition partly inspired by the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Arizona, and its Canadian branch representative Robert Dick, an astronomy instructor at Carleton University and national chair of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s light pollution abatement committee. The first of its kind in Canada, the exhibition takes on the challenge of educating the public, government, and industry on this important global issue. As noted in a news release: Light pollution is light that is not needed or wanted, including light that is too bright. Through educational text display panels, looped video presentations, interactive activities, and a Planetarium show demonstrating the before and after impact of night light pollution on major cities around the globe, Our Vanishing Sky educates visitors about the disturbingly negative effects of light pollution on their lives and what they can do about it. The exhibit continues to this summer.
Executive director Donna Livingston and her staff, including resident astronomers David Dodge and Peter Newberry, have created an intriguing and illuminating program with some surprises even a battle-weary veteran with 30 plus years experience of fighting the fluorescent plague can appreciate. The ticket price includes entry to all the exhibits. Weekdays at 3 pm, a terrific Planetarium show brings the cosmos and urban lightscapes to life. On the day I attended the show, an astrophysicist called Wanda ably described the mysteries of the cosmos and how light pollution, including sky glow and light trespass, affects our health and well-being, as well as reducing our ability to see and enjoy the stars. The show’s amazing images of London, England; Los Angeles, and Vancouver at night could have been enhanced, however, with more exhibit-related information about what the dramatic and varied multi-coloured light sources mean to astronomy and urban planning.
One of the Space Centre’s most interesting offerings is the virtual voyages motion simulator. While not promoted as part of Our Vanishing Sky, it’s a multi-sensory experience of light that depicts an imaginary Martian city nightscape. Show-goers participate in a virtual take-off and landing in outer space, and it reminded me of the trippy, multi-media light shows that highlighted such acts as Jim Morrison and The Doors when the band played at the Retinal Circus on Davie Street. I caught some of those great shows when I attended the Vancouver School of Art, and I simply have to ask: Are there any flower children out there reading this article who remember those love-ins and psychedelic strobe-light performances? Back to the present, I am happy to note that Our Vanishing Sky runs through to the World Urban Forum in 2006, offering thousands of delegates the opportunity to visit the Space Centre and hear and see the latest findings about environmental lighting. In the same month, we celebrate the summer solstice on June 21.
Incidentally, I was born a Sagittarian, on the cusp of Capricorn, within hours of the solstice on December 22, 1947, just months after the Roswell event in New Mexico, which consequently sparked research into aliens and UFOs. Could this explain my lifelong fascination with light? As a self-styled Renaissance artist, I spent many passionate days promoting the light revolution on worldwide lightscape tours, including China and Japan, culminating during the year of Habitat with a retrospective exhibition called Light Probe at the Vancouver Art Gallery. I am pleased to discover that the torch is now being carried by newly formed organizations, such as the IDA and StarWatch, a province-wide survey of light pollution launched by the Ontario Science Centre in 2004.
In 1974, The Chicago Tribune dubbed Ralf Kelman the Nader of the lightscape. Co-sponsored by Marshall McLuhan and the Canada Council, Kelman visited Chicago as a guest speaker for the American Institute of Architects. He has written articles for Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Maclean’s, and Weekend Magazine. He was a guest on BBC Radio’s Jimmy Young Show and was featured in London’s Sunday Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
Light up the night on winter solstice
The Secret Lantern Society hosts a winter solstice event at the Space Centre on December 21. Between 3:30-5:30 pm, participants can make their own lanterns for a fee of $10, before joining the
procession to the False Creek Community Centre. Originating 12 years ago, this multi-community happening takes place in the West End, Kitsilano, Yaletown, Granville Island, Leg-in-Boot Square, Strathcona, and Chinatown’s Sun Yat Sen Gardens. Processions and musical performances start at 6 pm.
In Vancouver, the season of light began with the Diwali festival of South Asia, and continues from Channukah to winter solstice through to Christmas, inspiring a multitude of light displays, truly
representative of folk art.
Beginning in early December, Christmas light tours and carolling boat cruises are a great way to celebrate the festive season. And don’t forget to enjoy the pagan New Year’s on the solstice.