365daysDate: August 17, 2009

Title: Let There Be Night


Podcaster: Chuck Bueter


Description: While telescopes have expanded our view of the heavens for 400 years, light pollution now constricts it. In an effort to quantify how much of the night sky has already been lost, more than 3,400 students in one community measured local sky glow. Excerpts from conversations hint at possible outcomes that you could get by facilitating a comparable experiment in your community using many free resources.

Bio: Chuck Bueter is an amateur astronomer who advocates for dark skies in community programs, at astronomy camp, on websites, in the planetarium, with the US Dark Skies Working Group, at the bus stop, and with appreciation to many others not mentioned. He should spend more time along the soccer lines or cooking dinner.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, is brought to you by Paper Plate Education, because, like dark sky advocacy and stargazing itself, this stuff can be easy to do. Paper Plate Education, ‘Serving the Universe on a Paper Plate.’


Chuck Bueter:
I love that theme song at 365DaysOf “This stuff is far, far, far away.” For us terrestrial creatures, the rest of the Universe begins at the sky. While the starry night must have been fantastic hundreds of years ago, it still represented a boundary. Galileo’s use of the telescope pushed the limits, both of the naked eye and of the human mind. We celebrate that push with the 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

However, nowadays, our expanded view of the Universe is closing back in on us. The achievements of Galileo and others are being countered by our collective trashing of the night with light pollution. While this astronomy stuff is “far, far, far away,” sadly, for many of us terrestrial creatures, the rest of the Universe now ends at sky glow.

This podcast is an amalgam of conversations related to Let There Be Night, which was a community-wide science experiment led by the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, or PHM, in northern Indiana. The experiment’s question was, “How much of the night sky have we already lost?” For an introduction, listen to Gosh Dim It All, the Jan. 18th podcast at

What follows are some excerpts from a school board meeting at which a team of students presented the LTBN results, along with some conversations with Assistant Superintendent Nancy Nimtz, a few students, and their parents.

Art Klinger, PHM Planetarium Director:
Between March 14 and March 28 of this year, over 3,400 PHM students from grades 3 through 8 quantified the darkness of our night sky by comparing what they observed in their backyards, namely, Orion the Hunter, with six star charts.

In the months leading up to the district-wide experiment, individual schools conducted their own activities and lesson plans about light pollution or the featured constellation Orion. For one dynamic activity, maybe 80 or 100 students scurrying across a gym floor simulated sea turtles hatching in the presence of light pollution. Way cool, lots of fun.

For LTBN, every PHM student visited the planetarium for a hands-on demonstration of light pollution. Here’s a student’s recap at the school board meeting.

James, student:
This is supposed to be the Maglite® demonstration. The Maglite is supposed to represent a streetlight. The streetlight would be giving off sky glow, which is light shining up in the sky that causes light pollution, and also glare for drivers, so they can’t see the road, and then light trespass, for the surrounding buildings. But when you, like, shield it, which eliminates all three of those possibilities… and so it’s also more energy efficient so you save more money.

Mindy O’Malley, science teacher:
My students did a variety of projects. It was wonderful to see how excited they became when they realized this was about them — their world. We started them thinking about the types of light pollution. If they were interested in a particular one, then they delved deeper into that pollution and informed their classmates about some of the negative effects or impacts it had on them or their health or the environment. They talked about glare, talked about safety. So it was just a variety of things — animals, the turtles — anything the student was passionate about.

Members from our team met with the Mayor of Mishawaka and with the St. Joseph County Council to discuss outdoor lighting issues. The conversation included saving taxpayer dollars, keeping streets safe, and lessening the light pollution from city and county lights.

While all students could observe Orion, Student Leadership Teams from each of 14 schools quantified sky glow from their school grounds every night, clear or not, with Sky Quality Meters. When the actual experiment began, in concert with Globe at Night, we had several clear nights.

Ally, student:
At home we’d just walk outside and look and count how many stars we could get out of Orion. The next morning I’d go to school and our teachers would call out our names and we’d tell her our number.

Imagine, across one community over 3,400 kids were going out multiple nights at 9:30 p.m. — these are kids in grades 3 to 8 — to observe Orion.

The Student Leadership Teams took those thousands of readings and built a 3D model of the results using LEGO® blocks. A column of stacked blocks placed on a 4-foot by 8-foot map of the school district indicated the limiting magnitude at that location.

So what were the results?

We took all the readings and kind of mashed them together and came out with median numbers, and then we made this LEGO model. We did it on layers of colors, and the best color would be black, and the worst would be red, and between there was orange, yellow, green, and blue. Black would be the best, and there’s no black anywhere on the model.

No black, she said. Nowhere was there a perfect sky. In fact, the average limiting magnitude, as measured by thousands of observers, was about 3.5. Essentially, the night sky was about nine times brighter than an ideal magnitude = 6 sky.

Of the 35,000 LEGO blocks that would have represented the ideal night sky above our community, over 12,000 blocks had to be removed and put in a “debris pile” that showed visually what has been lost to light pollution.

We also printed an Analysis brochure that showed the results and asked follow-up questions of the students. Copies of the handout were delivered to every student and teacher in grades 3-8.

Here’s something that came into every kid’s home that actually talked about your own neighborhood, or your own geographical area, and it made people think more about lights, and about light pollution, and why it’s a critical element in our journey towards being better caregivers to our earth and our environment. As we sit down and do facility plannings, I’m to ask, you know, “What kind of light covers do we have? How are we going to keep our light down?” I think in the future it will make a difference in our school district.

David Wistreich, parent:
I think it was a worthwhile, community-wide effort to engage in, to create a general awareness of the amount of light we emit around here, and that people will be thinking a little bit more about how to be conservation-minded. And that’s a terrific thing.

That spark that ignites students’ inquisitiveness, their creativity, their questioning — that spark is such a rare flame. In this experiment, in this activity, we saw it all around us.

This podcast is really an appeal for you and your community to give citizen-science a try.

On the web, visit or Borrow what you want, whether a fun Turtle Hatch activity or a wholesale star hunt program. You can do this, and most of the resources are in place for you to tailor to your own needs.

I’m Chuck Bueter, who, with Planetarium Director Art Klinger, thank the many supporters — administrators, teachers, parents, businesses, our families, and especially the kids — who brought this community science experiment to fruition.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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