Observatory director’s event will look to the night skies
During a dark clear night, travelers going west from Parley’s Summit on I-80 will notice a glow coming from the Salt Lake Valley.
Thousands of lights — residential, business, street and billboard— create what is called light pollution.
Light pollution, which, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “artificial skylight that interferes especially with astronomical observations.”
Paul Ricketts, University of Utah Observatory director, will address light pollution during a “Star Party presentation” from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Swaner EcoCenter.
“The presentation will discuss light pollution and how it negatively affects many things, including astronomy, biology, wildlife and humans,” Ricketts said during a Park Record interview.
Light pollution is harmful to wildlife because it alters their bodies as well as their ecosystems.
“Many nocturnal hunting animals, like cougars who live in the mountains of California, are changing their movement patterns to avoid the brighter sections of their hunting grounds,” Ricketts said. “Light also changes how birds interact, because it extends their daytime. In some cases, the light becomes an eternal sunset and it affects the birds’ ecosystems.”
Studies have shown that light pollution is also affecting human health.
“There have been some studies that link breast cancer to the inability for the body to fall into a deep sleep because of light pollution,” Ricketts said. “Not falling into a deep sleep makes it difficult for the body to rid itself of toxins and cells that the body would remove at night. The danger is that some of these cells could turn into cancer cells.”
Light pollution also makes it harder, and in some cases, impossible for astronomers to do their jobs, Ricketts said.
“It prevents them from seeing things in space and studying things they need to study,” he said.
Some people may question why this type of research is important.
“One of the questions we hear is, ‘Why are my taxes paying for this kind of stuff?’ because people don’t understand why astronomy and physics is important,” Ricketts said. “What they may not know is many of the things the medical world use come from studying astronomy.”
New algorithms used in the study of astronomy are now being used for faster MRIs so doctors and specialists have more detailed images of what’s happening inside the human body, and the development of charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras, which stores photos where each pixel is converted into an electrical charge that matches colors on the color spectrum, was pushed along faster because of astronomy, Ricketts said.
Astronomy is also helpful for the Earth’s safety.
“Asteroids are coming at us all the time and we need to be aware, so we are not taken by surprise by a big one that could destroy our entire planet,” Ricketts said.
But the thing that excites Ricketts the most about astronomy is knowing the human race isn’t the only things that matter in the universe.
“Astronomy addresses where we come from and where we’re heading and also what things we need to look out for that come from space,” he said.
While his presentation will attempt to address all of these issues, Ricketts said he hopes the night is clear so he can show his audience the sky.
“We will look at the moon because it will be nice and bright, but there will be other things I want them to see,” he said. “We hope people will come with astronomy questions and have some fun.”
Paul Ricketts, a physicist who runs the University of Utah Observatory, will present a star-party event from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Swaner EcoCenter, 1250 Center Drive at Kimball Junction. The cost is $5 for the public or free for Swaner EcoCenter members. Registration is required. For information and to register, visit http://www.swanerecocenter.org.
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