On 23 February 2000, Facilities Services installed several new flood lights on the Quads. The Ryerson Astronomical Society has three levels of objections to these lights: the first is practical, the second is economic and the third is environmental.
Our primary practical concern is the interference the new lights cause with astronomical observations from our observatory on top of Ryerson, which the Ryerson Astronomical Society has maintained and used since at least the 1930's.
As the blanket of light enveloping the City of Chicago at night has grown denser, we have turned to technological aides to help us see the sky. A few years ago, with Student Government assistance, RAS built a digital camera that we connected to one of our telescopes. This camera enables us to photograph astronomical bodies that we could not otherwise see, such as supernovae in other galaxies, despite the brightness of Chicago's sky.
The digital camera cannot, however, cut through the lights close to it, such as those shining upon Ryerson and Eckhart. Those lights will, instead, overwhelm the camera, just as they will overwhelm our attempts to see deep sky objects with our own eyes. Presently, we most actively use our observatory to look east, toward Eckhart, as that is the darkest part of the sky; the new lights eliminate that advantage.
Unfortunately, putting the lights on timers (as Facilities Services has suggested) would not solve the problem, since we most often use the observatory in the evening. There are many hours of astronomical darkness before 10, especially during the school year.
Our economic objection concerns the nature of the new lights. They are unshielded lights, some of which -- such as the ones on Ryerson -- point upward, not downward. The brightest ones consume about about 400 watts of electricity per hour in order to illuminate the walls of buildings and the air around the building.
In order to produce an increase in safety, lights should illuminate the ground, particularly the areas where people walk. The new lights may actually make it harder for a person to see where they are walking. The eye cannot adjust to two different levels of brightness at the same time. Thus, by overlighting the buildings, the lights end up making the rest of the Quads look darker.
As students, we object to the use of thousands of dollars of our tuition money each year on wasteful lighting. Far better alternatives exist. Shielded lights that emit little radiance upward or to the side illuminate the ground more brightly, at a lower cost and with less glare than the new lights -- or, indeed, many of the older lights around campus.
Our final, environmental concern is closely related to our economical concern. One of the primary purposes of the Ryerson Astronomical Society, according to our constitution, is "to combat light pollution in all of its evil forms, natural and artificial." In addition to wasting money, unshielded and upward-facing lights pollute the sky with light. They prevent urban residents from admiring the majesty of the night sky without producing any benefit greater than that of environmentally-sound lighting.
Humans do not live in Earth's atmosphere. Birds, insects and other night flyers do not need the help of our lights. Although using environmentally sound lighting on campus will not restore the beauty of the night immediately, the example set by the University would be a step in the right direction.
(For more information about efficent lighting, please see http://www.darksky.org/ida/info77.html)