I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
—Isa. 45:3, ESV
It’s difficult to imagine how light-saturated our age has become, or how dark the night can really be. One form or another of fire—torches, candles, or lamps—was used inside and outside until well into the 20th century. Only recently has electricity come on the scene to transform our understanding of night. There was some rudimentary form of public lighting by the end of the 17th century, but we didn’t have any electrical lights until the end of the 19th century. Now they are ubiquitous. Today, two-thirds of Americans and Europeans no longer experience real darkness.
In 2001, amateur astronomer John Bortle created a scale that describes levels of darkness, ranking them 9 to 1, brightest to darkest. He hoped his scale would “prove both enlightening and useful to observers,” though it’s also horrified some. Most of us have experienced the brighter end of Bortle’s scale—Class 9, Inner-city Sky; or Class 7, Suburban/Urban transition; or Class 5, Suburban Sky. This is normal dark for us. But Bortle’s scale shows us something darker, which few of us experience any more. Like a night dark enough to register 3 (“a rural sky” where only “some indication of light pollution is evident along the horizon”) or 2 (a “truly dark site”).
Then there’s Bortle’s Class 1, which is a sky so dark that “the Milky Way casts obvious diffuse shadows on the ground.” Many people doubt if such darkness still exists in the continental US.
Paul Bogard, ...
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