Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘light pollution’

That old camera in the back of the closet … and other science stories

Old cameras fascinate me. I still have my father’s old Argus C3, my mother’s Kodak Brownie Starmeter, and a couple of vintage Instamatics, among others. Somehow I acquired an Argus 75 box camera and a busted Falcon Miniature — there’s a hole in the latter’s body where the shutter button used to be, so that the interior will never be lightproof again. I’m not sure whether those two were purchased by Dad or another family member, but I ended up with them.

My interest in old cameras is certainly not limited to my personal stash. I totally geeked out when I was doing that OPN article on “Photography in the American Civil War” and got to spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching a guy making tintypes in Gettysburg, Pa. And I’ve written about the use of cameras and other optical equipment during the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s; it’s in the hands of the OPN editors now and will probably appear later this year.

So, imagine my delight at recent news reports that the widow of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, found a bag of his Apollo 11 memorabilia in the back of her closet — and, even better, lent them to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. Best of all, the 16-mm Data Acquisition Camera that was supposed to have been left behind on the lunar surface came back to Earth!

I will have much more about this in my future OPN article, but basically, Apollo 11’s Eagle lander carried both video and film cameras. The video camera, mounted on the lander’s base, was pretty low-definition even by the standards of 1969 (that was the year the charge-coupled device was invented, but it certainly was nowhere near ready for prime-time broadcasting). The 16-mm motion picture camera was mounted so that it could look out the window of Eagle‘s ascent stage. It took much sharper pictures than the TV camera, but of course, no one could see those images until Columbia brought the film canisters (and astronauts) back home and technicians developed the film.

Many video clips of the Apollo 11 landing, such as this one, combine the film from the Data Acquisition Camera from the audio recorded by the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. What many people, especially those born after 1969, don’t realize is that the worldwide audience back on Earth could not see the film images in real time.

What the viewing public actually saw looked more like the CBS footage that you can find here and here: the live NASA audio combined with the voices of the television anchors, canned prepared animations, and the occasional “live shot” of people watching the coverage on giant screens. Because Armstrong had to steer around a boulder-strewn field at the last minute, there was a scary lag between the matter-of-fact animation’s depiction of the touchdown and the actual moment of contact with the lunar soil.

I can hardly wait until Armstrong’s stash goes on display at the Smithsonian. It will be awesome to see the actual camera that took some of the most exciting motion-picture footage of my lifetime, even if it wasn’t broadcast in real time.

(NASA’s own inventory of the objects appears here.)

Before I sign off, I’d like to mention a few other science-related stories that I’ve recently found interesting. I think I’ve mentioned most of them on Facebook, either on my personal or my professional page.

  • First, a Pittsburgh startup company has gotten FDA approval for a new kind of internal tissue adhesive. I know someone whose husband could have really used this stuff after the abdominal surgeries he’s had over the past couple of years. The scientist who developed the adhesive is married to one of my high school classmates.
  • A handheld Raman spectroscopy probe could help neurosurgeons find sneaky, aggressive cancer cells within brain tissue. This too is rather near and dear to me at the moment, because a close friend of a close friend is in hospice care for glioblastoma, which is pretty much the worst kind of brain cancer you can get. She just turned 46 years old, which is way too young to die.
  • Finally, in March and September, you’ll have a couple of opportunities to help measure the brightness of the night sky where you live. You should have no trouble remembering the March date on which this citizen-science effort begins, because it falls on Super Π Day.

Jyväskylä: The “City of Light in Finland” balances lux and luxury

Here’s a nice post from the International Year of Light’s official blog. Jyväskylä (please don’t ask me how to pronounce that!) is about 300 km north of Helsinki, as far as I can tell from online maps — not far enough north to be truly Arctic, but still up there in the “long winter nights” department. I like this city’s approach to good urban lighting design, with due consideration to mitigating light pollution.

International Year of Light Blog

Jyväskylä located in Central Finland is a lively city with a growing population. Finland’s seventh largest city is home to almost 136,000 people. Jyväskylä, well known for its green surroundings and Alvar Aalto architecture, is also Finland’s City of Light.

Kuokkala bridge. Credits: Jani Salonen Kuokkala bridge. Credits: Jani Salonen

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Keeping up with dark-sky issues

A couple of years ago, I said at the end of my OPN article on light pollution that I’d be blogging on that subject here. I’ll admit that I haven’t always done so, but I was heartened to read a couple of articles on the subject of dark skies this week, and I thought I’d pass them along to you.

Physics Central, a website run by the American Physical Society, posted an essay highlighting the push to create dark-sky reserves and to monitor the levels of sky brightness around observatories. The post includes a link to the trailer for the 2011 documentary The City Dark, which is absolutely required viewing if you have any interest at all in the subject (and for sharing at people who need to develop an interest!). The City Dark is now available on Netflix, so you no longer need to wait for a special film festival.

As a cover story in its Sunday magazine, the Washington Post covered the carnage caused by birds flying into brightly lit urban buildings — and the “Lights Out” groups who are trying to do something about it. The City Dark mentioned this as well, but this article brings the issue to people who would never go out of their way to watch a documentary about light pollution.

Let’s hope light pollution and the associated energy savings from proper lighting are finally getting into widespread public consciousness. Clear skies!

This month’s astronomical thoughts

As this month draws to a close, I would like to admit to a couple of things that have weighed on my mind recently. One is a feature article I just finished writing for a future issue of Optics & Photonics News. The other is the sad loss of a friend.

I met Craig and Elizabeth Levin nearly 10 years ago. I have always thought of them as a fabulously-in-love married couple who would grow old together. But, alas, that is not to be, as Craig died this past week at the age of 42.

Craig worked in the library at NASA headquarters, served as the newsletter editor for the Astronomical Society of Greenbelt, and was the volunteer website content editor for He was a fellow member of the DC Science Writers Association, and I remember one DCSWA event a few years back when he and I were both on the four-person team that won a “trivia night” competition. His strengths and mine complemented each other well — he knew more about the history of Wales than I ever will, and I just happened to know which popular rock band has a lead singer named Paul Hewson. (He was really stumped on that one. I told him, “But its lead guitarist is Dave Evans!”)

Craig also wrote and staged several planetarium shows for the Howard B. Owens Science Center, which is just down the road from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  If you would like to make a contribution in his memory, please send it to: Howard B. Owens Science Center, In Memory of C. Levin, 9601 Greenbelt Road, Lanham, MD 20706.

In other space-related news and notes, I see that the Koshland Science Museum has an interactive museum exhibit called Lights at Night. A recent blog post discusses the effect that our bluish-lit electronics may have on our ability to get a good night’s sleep. That post mentions a recent Nature article whose author uses an app called f.lux to make screens more “evening-appropriate” at night. I just might try it out … after I try to get some sleep.

A graphic demonstration

A couple of entries ago, I alluded to the powerful storm that knocked out electrical power to more than 1 million customers in the mid-Atlantic region. A NASA imaging satellite has captured before-and-after pictures of the region at night — and the results reveal something about light pollution, too.

NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft, a project based right here in my current community of Greenbelt, Maryland, imaged the region just before and after the storm last Friday night. Be sure to click on the “View Image Comparison” button — it takes you to a layered image with a “slider” so you can “blink” between the two photographs.

Granted, after the storm the Philadelphia, Delaware and Eastern Shore (Maryland) regions were covered with clouds. But you can definitely see the widespread outages all over the area west of the Chesapeake Bay. Not everyone lost power — you can see where the cities are, but they looked “dimmer” from outer space.

Of course, we use electrical power for lots of things besides lighting. However, we Americans tend not to be models of prudence when it comes to outdoor lighting, and we end up sending an awful lot of lumens up into the sky, especially when we live close to each other. I wonder how many people looked up at the night sky after the storm (maybe very late Friday night/early Saturday morning, or Saturday evening) and noticed a difference. Was there indeed a difference? I’m curious whether anyone made reasonably quantitative measurements. (Sorry, I didn’t.)

Courtesy of my Google Alert, here are a few more news article on The City Dark from, the International Business Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Chicago Sun-Times. Also, Discovery News offers tips on how to view the Milky Way — that is, if you can get far away from the murk of the cities to detect it at all.

A “point of view” you absolutely must see

As if someone at PBS headquarters was reading Optics & Photonics News (I wish!), PBS has scheduled the wonderful documentary The City Dark for its “POV” summer documentary series.

I saw The City Dark earliest this year at an environmental film in Washington, D.C. Why, yes, I just happened to be working on my OPN article at the time, but I would have appreciated the movie even if I had no plans to write about light pollution. It’s just more lyrical and expressive than I can manage. (I used to think I was pretty eloquent, but that was back in the day when electric typewriters still set the standard for individual written communication.) And it had Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve seen Neil deGrasse Tyson in person a couple of times, most recently (well, a couple of  years ago) at a retirement “roast” for longtime American Astronomical Society press officer Steve Maran. When it comes to communicating astronomy to the public, Neil deGrasse Tyson rocks my world.

Anyhow, you can watch the trailer for The City Dark on the PBS website and check the local listings for the film, because PBS stations often do their own thing. Supposedly, “POV” is a Thursday night feature, but here in the Washington area, WETA is airing the documentary on Saturday, July 7, at 11:15 p.m. Also check out for information where you can see it possibly on a larger screen than you have at home and/or with a bunch of like-minded people besides your own family.

Welcome again!

If you’re coming to this blog from my feature article on light pollution in the July/August issue of OPN, welcome!

I mentioned my blog at the end of the article for the simple reason that I found out way, way more information about light pollution than I could ever cram into a magazine article of a manageable length. And news is always coming out about the subject, even as I sit here and type this. So I thought I’d experiment by blogging updates to my article, at least for a month (or two, since OPN combines its July and August issues into one).

First off, if you are on Facebook and don’t already “Like” my science-writing page, please do so! On some days, it’s just easier to forward an interesting link that someone else posted than to do the writeup myself. Of course, on my Facebook page as well as on this blog, not all the posts are concerned with light pollution. However, I try to keep them reasonably focused on science topics that I find interesting or novel.

Second, the world’s premier organization fighting light pollution, the International Dark-Sky Association, also has a Facebook page. I follow it closely.

Although I wish I could write more tonight, I hate to spend too much time on a single entry right now. Thanks to this weekend’s derecho, electrical power in my region is tenuous. I had one outage from Friday night through yesterday evening, and a second blackout for about two and a half hours tonight. I’m not entirely convinced I won’t get a third before things get back to normal.