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Monday, November 12, 2012

An obvious question: Why are you shining those lights in the wrong place?

David Brooks

Solving most problems is hard and expensive, so let’s ignore them.

Instead, let’s talk about a problem with fairly simple solutions that tackle several different issues at once, and where the fix often ends up being cheaper than the status quo. ...

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Solving most problems is hard and expensive, so let’s ignore them.

Instead, let’s talk about a problem with fairly simple solutions that tackle several different issues at once, and where the fix often ends up being cheaper than the status quo.

That problem is light pollution, which by non-coincidence is the topic of the next Science Cafe New Hampshire – hosted, as always, by a charming, articulate fellow who happens to be me.

The cafe is this Tuesday (not Wednesday this month) at 7 p.m. in The Barley House in Concord, and it’s free. Stop by, grab a beer and some dinner, and plunge into two hours of interesting conversation.

The panel will include an amateur astronomer and an astronomy professor, courtesy of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, which is co-sponsoring this Science Cafe.

Light pollution seems esoteric when astronomers lament the difficulty of getting good pictures of Uranus’ moons, or biologists lament how nocturnal species are getting discombobulated. But it’s really a down-to-earth issue, as shown in the way Merrimack Premium Outlets installed new shielding on its lights this summer after neighbors complained they were being blinded and annoyed.

This is a classic example of light pollution, although it’s often called “light trespass” to make it fit more easily into legal frameworks.

Battling this problem has required a change of attitude about lighting, which Bob Gillette sums up like this: “Some light is necessary, but more light is not necessarily better.”

Gillette, one of three panelists who will be at the cafe, knows whereof he speaks. The science journalist and amateur astronomer retired to Ossipee six years ago. He became interested in the issue because glare from strip malls on nearby Route 16 were making it hard to see the night sky.

Gillette, who serves on his town’s Planning Board, helped state legislators draw up guidelines that minimizes the light spillover that usually accompanies development.

The guidelines are full of yawn-inducing concepts like metal-halide vs. sodium light characteristics and grandfathered zoning regulations, but the net result is to help keep our night skies looking like New Hampshire and not New Jersey.

“It encourages the preservation of dark skies as a cultural asset,” said Gillette.

Economic asset, too. Think of ways to lure more tourists: What can they see here that they can’t see in Boston, no matter how rich they are?

“During the day, tourists look at things like covered bridges, but they’re also awake at night, and they expect a rural experience at night – including seeing the Milky Way,” said Gillette.

As I’ve said in this column before, I think New Hampshire’s North County should pursue this idea as a tourism draw, using the example of Mont Megantic in central Quebec. That resort received the world’s first designation as a Dark Sky Preserve by the International Dark-Sky Association, and flouts the award prominently in its advertising.

The easiest argument for limiting light pollution, though, is that it’s stupid to waste something you pay for.

You wouldn’t buy bottled water and then pour it on your neighbor’s window or throw it up in the air to evaporate, so why should our towns buy light from PSNH and then pump it out of streetlights that pour it in our windows or send it into space?

“Installing the right lights doesn’t cost any more than installing the wrong lights,” said Gillette, who pointed out that those views of illuminated Manchester you see from the window when landing at the airport are mostly the result of stupid, wasteful lighting.

“Why am I looking down and seeing streetlights – shouldn’t they be facing the other way?” he asked.

You won’t want to be facing the other way when this gets discussed Tuesday night. See you there.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.