APS News

Physics Enlightens the World, and Battles Light Pollution Too

By Ernie Tretkoff

One of the main international events celebrating the World Year of Physics (WYP) will have the additional benefit of raising awareness about the dangers of light pollution, which is a problem of particular concern to astronomers and astrophysicists.

The event, dubbed "Physics enlightens the world," will consist of a relay of light beams around the globe in one night, starting in Princeton, NJ on April 18, 2005, the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death.

Max Lippitsch of the University of Graz in Austria is in charge of organizing the event, which was first proposed at the WYP planning meeting in Graz in 2003, and was endorsed by the International Steering Committee of the WYP in Montréal last March.

One of the main goals of the light relay is to bring publicity to physics and the WYP, through media coverage and possibly even an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. Money raised during the event would go to a fund administered by UNESCO dedicated to aiding physics education in developing countries.

The organizers hope to have from ten to twenty thousand participants, each of whom will turn on a light for less than one minute. Event guidelines say that participants can use almost any source of light, including flashlights, and car headlights.

Earlier this year, members of various groups in the astronomical community pointed out that, even though the actual amount of light released into the atmosphere would be negligible, this event ignored the seriousness of light pollution as a danger to the environment.

Virginia Trimble, who is chair of the IUPAP commission on astrophysics, expressed concern on behalf of that group. She said, "My first thought was, 'Oh, what a cute idea.' Some colleagues have reacted that way and not gone beyond that. I think physicists haven't grasped how valuable the night sky is to astronomers, and maybe all of us haven't realized how devastating light pollution is, not just for astronomy, but for all kinds of wildlife." Other groups registering their unhappiness included the American Astronomical Society, the International Dark Sky Association, Citizens for Responsible Lighting, and the International Astronomical Union.

In response to this criticism, Lippitsch changed the wording of the project description, and has altered the event to be more sensitive to the concerns of astronomers. For instance, the ring of light will now be preceded by a "flash of darkness"—participants agree to turn off lights in their area for a few moments before receiving and transmitting the light signal. "This would be a very nice way to show people that we should be aware of the problems of light pollution," said Lippitsch.

Also, participants would pledge to permanently remove or baffle one light on their property, thereby reducing light pollution.

"Physics Enlightens the World" is not specifically a US event, and the APS is not involved in organizing it. But the US WYP web site, www.physics2005.org, links to the international events, including "Physics Enlightens the World." Since the event is planned to begin and end in Princeton, participation by individual Americans is essential if the project is to succeed.

As a way to foster the increased awareness of light pollution in connection with this project, the APS Executive Board passed a resolution at its meeting in October, which reads in part: "The American Physical Society urges individuals and organizations to reduce light pollution, which is endangering our ability to explore the outer reaches of the Universe with telescopes that observe faint light from distant objects." The full resolution is posted on the APS website, together with links to other sites that address the issue of light pollution.

Elsewhere in the world, light pollution issues have assumed varying degrees of importance in the physics community.

In the UK, the Institute of Physics has decided not to support "Physics Enlightens the World." Because of "respect to the astronomy community and concerns about the light pollution," according to IoP International Director Peter Melville.

In an example unrelated to the WYP and apparently oblivious to concerns over light pollution, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of CERN on September 29 was accompanied by a dazzling visual display. According to the CERN press release issued the week before, "At 20:00 sharp on 29 September, Micheline Spoerri, Head of Geneva's Department of Justice, Police and Security, will throw the switch for 24 powerful 'skytracer' floodlights to light up the night sky of the Geneva-Pays de Gex region."

Meanwhile, Lippitsch notes that interest in "Physics Enlightens the World" is high worldwide. "We have many people who are enthusiastic about this idea," he said. "Several countries already we know will take part, and there will be many people participating in this event."

Light relay event website: http://www.wyp2005.at/glob1-light.htm.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette