Seeing Stars

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About ten years ago, my husband and I had supper at a friend’s house in rural Minnesota. As we were leaving, our friend said, “Wait, let me turn off the porch light, then we can see the stars better.” We stood in silence looking at the star-studded night sky. It was stunning. “Isn’t this beautiful?” someone whispered.

I felt bewildered as we drove home. Even as a staunch environmentalist I’d never given the night sky a thought. When we arrived in the city, I looked up and saw a few anemic-looking stars in a sickly orange sky. I decided to get educated.

I contacted the International Dark-Sky Association ( and requested information. A week later a huge packet arrived in the mail. After that, no friend escaped without hearing about those glaring lights along the streets, in parking lots, on houses and businesses, along lakes, in barnyards. Often I received the inevitable reply: “Seeing the stars is nice but I want my security. Lights attract business and reduce vandalism.” But in fact, non-glaring light with appropriate wattage increases security. Try this: shield your eyes from a glaring light — and notice greatly improved visibility.

Artificial light has in many ways served us well, but we have been lax in pondering the possible negative consequences. I finally found reference to a conference at the Boston Museum of Science that brought together health professionals, environmentalists, criminologists, lighting engineers, lawmakers, manufacturers, and members of the International Dark-Sky Association to learn how artificial outdoor light affects us in ways perhaps never imagined.

Today’s outdated outdoor night lights waste over $2 billion a year in energy costs in the U.S. alone. They produce glare that law enforcement agencies know is unsafe. Millions of migrating songbirds die each year by slamming into brightly lit buildings. Most disturbing, these lights can negatively affect our health in ways we are only recently beginning to explore.

Armed with research and visual aids — thanks to a grant from the University of Minnesota — I started to share information with city councils, planning commissions, county boards, and service clubs. At first people were perturbed: “Who is this woman? And what is she talking about?” Then, after a while, people sighed and rolled their eyes: “Oh, it’s her.” I became known as the Night Lady.

But after over eighty-five presentations, something began to happen. At planning meetings when the issue of outdoor lighting came up, someone would say, “Let’s make sure we have proper downlighting.” And the Night Lady was nowhere around. A new, large, local subdivision proudly installed elegant, full-cutoff streetlights (which point the light down rather than out and upward). The University of Minnesota put downlighting of street lamps in their long-range plan.

When we built a home on forty acres in rural Minnesota, we recessed the lights on our front porch and used nonglaring lights on the garage. We put our land in perpetual conservation with the Minnesota Land Trust, and outdoor lighting language is now part of their easements and discussed with landowners.

Yes, we benefit from artificial outdoor lights. But we need to get rid of the outdated models and keep working to preserve everyone’s birthright of being able to gape at that awesome, mysterious, star-filled sky.


  1. Hurrah. Laws requiring downlighting are sometimes called “reverbere” laws, after the reverberes of Paris — the ellipsoidal down-reflectors on traditional Paris streetlights. And in the dark parts of the city, one can still see stars. Reverberes were once common — NYC had them till the 1940s, which is why “see the stars” pay telescopes could do business in Central Park. They’re more humane, more comfortable, more energy efficient, probably actually better at crime prevention, and CHEAP — it’s amazing how much a couple pounds of aluminum shaped to deflect the light downward helps, when you consider an unshielded light is sending as much as 50% of its light upward, i.e. into space, where they don’t need it. Also it’s a design opportunity: the inside of the reflector needs to be ellipsoidal or perhaps gently parabolic, but the shell that surrounds it can be any number of shapes from the elegant to the whimsical, and that can become a kind of signature for a city.

  2. I’m no professional astronomer but do own two fairly large telescopes, an 8″ newtonian and a 7″ maksutov. I live in Daytona Beach, Florida and before Daytona Beach was in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Both these small cities suffer from severe light polution. Seldom can an individual see an entire constellation. Five years ago I bought a piece of land on Little Abaco, Bahamas. Both scopes reside there now and though there are several street lights within a mile the sky is beautiful. The Milky way can be seen every evening as can the large and small Magellanic clouds. Whenever my stateside friends and relatives come to visit they are awed. I wish more local governments would consider light pollution as a true pollution and do something to regulate it. I have replaced or removed all exterior lights in my humble homes and though this almost has no effect on our electric bill, if you do the math you save a couple of dollars a month and throughout one short lifetime it adds up. Be frugal, and try to do your share thats all I ask anybody that visits the night sky.

  3. You own 40 acres in rural MN? What a waste. The best way to save our land is for us to gather in cities and towns…not spoil our rural areas with houses and such. Plus imagine all the carbon you expel when you commute to the town or the city.

    Spoiled and ignorant

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