Tom Burns: Who stole the Milky Way?

Tom Burns - Stargazing

As spring turns to summer, most stargazers look forward most of all to the view of the summer Milky Way. Right now, you can see it low in the east just after dark as a faint patch of light that stretches across the eastern horizon. By August it spans the sky like the backbone of the night or, as the original inhabitant of Australia have it, like the backbone of god.

It is best seen from a dark, rural sky, of course. There it glows brightly with complex undulations and dark rifts that a lifetime of close inspection will not exhaust. And in even the smallest binoculars, it explodes into uncountable stars.

More times than I can count, people have approached me to talk about their first – and only, sadly – dark-sky Milky Way experience. Often they have seen it from a small island in the center of Lake Erie or from some state park in southern Ohio. Increasingly, that’s where you have to go.

As I stood on the grounds at Perkins Observatory recently, a man approached me with such a story. He wondered why we could not see the Milky Way from Perkins.

“We can,” I said, “but it takes a practiced eye.”

“Practiced eye” indeed.

The experience put me in mind of a visit to Perkins by David Crawford of the International Dark Sky Association a few years back when the Milky Way shone more brightly. He was there to spread his gospel of sane outside lighting. Most memorable was a button pinned to his chest. In Italian it read, “Chi ha rubato la Via Lattea?” — Who stole the Milky Way?

The button is right, of course. For most of the population of the industrialized world, the awe-inspiring glow of our galaxy has disappeared, lost in the glare of streetlights, security lights, billboards and garishly lit sports facilities.

The problem, of course, isn’t outside lighting — it’s bad outside lighting. Even the most diehard stargazer will concede that streetlights can provide a feeling of security and make driving safer.

However, according to Crawford, we don’t light the streets very efficiently. In many cases, we actually worsen the conditions we seek to solve, and we do so at a greater financial cost than we would if we used more efficient lighting techniques.

Here are the problems that Crawford outlined that night:

1. Glare. Many of our lighting fixtures point too much of their illumination directly at our eyes instead of at the streets. How many times have you been blinded by streetlights instead of helped by them? Lighting fixtures should send all of their illumination downward, not to the side or up.

An example: As I get off the freeway at State Route 315 and Bethel Road, the lights that illuminate a sports field nearby often blind me. Most of their light is shining in my eyes and not down at the field. As Crawford said, “we should see the effects of lights, not the lights themselves.”

2. Light trespass. Many current lighting fixtures waste light by shining it in our windows, and on to our yards. Efficient lighting goes where it belongs and not where it’s not wanted.

3. Crime. Some outdoor lighting is designed to provide security, but much of it is so badly placed that dark areas are created where criminals can hide. While you are walking, you must travel from dark to brightly lit areas, ruining your own ability to see potential danger. The criminal hiding in darkness has no such problem seeing you.

Lights designed to point downward don’t have that problem. They can safely and efficiently illuminate the entire designated area.

4. Trashy light pollution. If the music at a concert is too loud for the neighbors, they don’t hesitate to ask local officials to do something about it. Light pollution adds to the stress of daily life as much as noise pollution. Who really wants the garishness and visual confusion we find on some well-traveled city streets?

5. Energy waste. When lights send their energy upward, your tax dollars are streaming off into space. Point-down lights focus the energy where it belongs. They can operate at lower wattages, and they don’t need to be replaced as often.

The sad thing is that we can do a lot about these problems, but we don’t. Local lighting authorities are very responsive to our requests. If your neighborhood is scheduled to be lit, arrange with your neighborhood association to ask for point-down lighting. If you plan to add a security light to your yard, don’t buy the first fixture that’s offered to you. Ask about point-down, shielded lights. Complain when freeway lights or sports facilities impede rather that help the visibility at an intersection. If you don’t like the trashy look of billboards, business signs, etc., say something about it.

There is no excuse for the inefficient way we light our streets and outdoor facilities. Using good lighting can save money in the long run, make our streets and sidewalks safer, and even reduce crime.

Oh, and by the way, it ensures that future generations of city kids can experience with their own eyes the glorious universe around us.

Who stole the Milky Way? We stole it from ourselves. Let us begin the slow task of taking it back for future generations.

For more information about the International Dark Sky Association, please visit IDA’s web site at

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.