I wrote a long time ago about the problem caused by excessive street lighting and sky glow that prevented a whole generation from growing up with the experience of awe induced in anyone looking up at a clear night sky.
Well, we now have many councils turning off street lights as early as 9pm, to reduce CO2 emissions, making streets dark, to the annoyance of many people and the delight of others, including me. Carbon emissions are one of the lesser problems facing us, and the carbon emissions this avoids will have an immeasurably small effect on the environment. But the law of unintended consequences this time acts in favour of science, and will even benefit the environment by a convoluted route nothing to do with the one intended.
Anyway, we can see stars again, and it’s wonderful. Hooray! Keep the lights off – not on motorways though, very different situation there.
When people look at the stars, and see a whole sky full of them, they can’t help but think about their place in the universe. They start to wonder what’s out there, whether we are alone, whether they matter and their place in the grand scheme of things, whether even humans matter. They wonder about going out there, visiting, their kids maybe being space travellers. There are very few science teachers who can match the raw inspiration of looking at a clear sky full of stars. Suddenly everyone is a Hawking or at least a Cox, or maybe even a budding Armstrong. Apart from that, seeing a rich clear sky directly improves our quality of life.
Turning off the lights will drag many people of the isolation induced by modern life. It will expand their minds and make them think further. It will encourage many kids to do science and engineering, helping our economy prosper. Some will be inspired to become scientists looking at nature, and will help the environment as a result. Many others will be made aware of the smallness and vulnerability of the Earth. Some will want to go into space, or become engineers developing space technology. Or entrepreneurs looking at the potential for exploration and commercial exploitation.
In short, although done for the wrong reasons, turning off the street lights will bring great rewards. It will make us happy, more curious about the universe, more concerned about the fragility of the Earth, more determined to protect it, but more aware of the external factors driving things. And it will act as a recruitment drive for a generation of space scientists and space engineers and even astronauts.
Turning off the street lights will greatly increase the number of awe and wonder experiences people feel, and could be the biggest boost to the UK space industry we’ve seen in a generation. It would be great if this was intentional and local governments knew what they were doing, but I very much doubt that. It is instead a very happy accident.