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Astronomer: Cutting light pollution key to seeing stars

Wednesday, February 01, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Janelle Walker

ELGIN — Some might call Robb Walker an amateur astronomer, but that goes a little further than his knowledge, the Elgin man admitted.

“I am a night sky enthusiast,” said Walker, who grew up in Mount Morris, Ill. As a child, he was “really into” astronomy and loved lying on a blanket in the backyard, just watching the stars.

“I could see the Milky Way and lots of stars,” Walker said. “Then I grew up, went into the Army and moved out to the suburbs,” and didn’t think much more about those nights looking at the sky.

Two years ago, however, when his then-4-year-old daughter asked him questions about the stars and planets, it re-ignited that passion, he said.

Walker (no relation to this reporter) got a telescope and began watching shows about stars and planets on TV. Walker and other Chicago-area amateur astronomers do what they call “sidewalk astronomy,” setting up telescopes outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and offering passers-by a chance to see a star and the planets on their own.

He also realized that his daughter, now age 6, probably won’t have the chance to grow up seeing the stars and planets the same way he did — because of light pollution.

So Walker founded the website, a site dedicated to amateur astronomy and the night sky in general.

He and others like him want to promote turning off lights in the cities at night, to give others the opportunity to really see what the night sky can be.

Some may say that if he wants to see the night sky, he should just drive out to the countryside — that the city is a place of bright lights and that nothing can, or should, be done about it.

But he suspects those people have never really seen what the sky can look like at night, Walker said.

Smart lighting

Night sky enthusiasts say they are not trying to make the U.S. or the Chicago region into a picture of North Korea — nighttime shots of nothing but blackness over the land.

“We are trying to educate people. What we are looking for is smart and responsible lighting at night,” Walker said.

The lights in parking lots that light the sky but not the parking lot, the neighbor’s yard light that stays on all night, the streetlights that are on from dusk to dawn with no shielding from the night sky — all those cause the light pollution that blocks views of the stars.

If there are laws about noise pollution — not keeping neighbors awake with noise from parties — then why, Walker asks, can a neighbor’s yard light be kept on all night, shining into his house?

He had one neighbor whose backyard light was so bright that even more than a block away from his home he could use that light to cast shadow puppets for his daughter.

Lights on all the time also give residents a false sense of security, he said. One United Kingdom study he referenced showed that crime went down when the lights were turned off at night — the criminals didn’t like being out in the pitch black either, and flashlights just drew attention to their actions, Walker said.

Targeting pollution

There also is a push in Cook County and the Cook County Forest District to reduce the amount of light pollution in the county, Walker noted.

“The Cook County Board and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County are considering a lighting ordinance that celebrates starlight and aims to reduce the light pollution so prevalent in the Chicago metropolitan area,” he said. “The ordinance has already been presented and a vote is scheduled for the beginning of February.”

Voters in Campton Hills approved of such a “dark sky” ordinance in a 2009, and Barrington Hills has passed local rules limiting light pollution.

Walker, several friends in the amateur astronomy community, and other like-minded organizations “are preparing for a grand celebration of our night skies in 2012.”

In July, the Astronomical League will host its annual conference in Chicago,

Called ALCon2012, the conference corresponds to both the 150th anniversary of modern astronomy in the Western Hemisphere and the 175th anniversary of the city of Chicago, Walker said.

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