Laura and I attempted to watch the Perseid meteor shower last Sunday night. Normally, we would hop in the convertible and try to find some dark sky. However, it was still dreadfully hot, and the clouds were iffy, so we just pulled chairs into the front yard and stared at the sky for awhile. I saw one bright meteor, but Laura didn’t see any. Those aren’t very good stats for an event that had been touted as optimum because of the new moon. You just can beat dark skies.
As we sat there, Laura quoted her favorite line from the movie Dragnet…
Ooo! Look at all the stars! There must be DOZENS of them!
It helps if you’re from Los Angeles to get the punch line. Sargent Friday (Dan Ackroyd) has taken Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) on a drive up to the Griffith Park Observatory. Connie is surprised at the number of stars she can see above the LA smog – dozens of them – not thousands or millions, but dozens.
Granted, our location is not ideal for astronomical observations. We’re only a couple of miles from Haywood Mall, and we’re sandwiched between the busy corridors of East North Street, Pleasantburg Drive, and Wade Hampton Boulevard. The amount of ambient light is incredible. One can understand why we can’t see anything. However, it’s getting harder and harder to find any place in Upstate South Carolina where there are dark skies. With urban sprawl and planned neighborhoods eating up all open areas, and subsequently putting up non-shielded street lamps, light pollution is now wide-spread over our area. Add to that the fact that our smog is almost as bad as Los Angeles was when Dragnet was made, and you’ve got a one-two punch against astronomy. It doesn’t help that we have politicians who refuse to use the "S"-word (smog), preferring the less threatening "ozone", and who would rather blame faulty air indicators at GSP rather than fix the problem.
The year before Dragnet came out (1986) was the year of the return of Halley’s Comet. I was living in Gray Court at the time, and on the farms outside the little town you could find dark skies. A friend from Furman had come down to see the comet. He had grown up in big cities in New Jersey, and had never experienced dark skies. I remember his awe at seeing the Milky Way spread out before him for the first time. To him, this was much more impressive than the elusive comet. I’m afraid the children of South Carolina are going to turn out just like him – never experiencing a clear view of the heavens. Perhaps, like my friend, they will have a greater appreciation of what has been lost once they do see stars, and will want to try restore that view.