April 4th to 10th is International Dark-Sky Week, whose main goal is to raise awareness about how light pollution degrades the quality of the night sky. The idea for this celebration came in 2002 to Jennifer Barlow, then a high-school student in Midlothian, Virginia.
Hers is a great story, actually. To publicize her idea, Barlow set up a website, distributed leaflets in her neighborhood, and encouraged everyone who'd listen to turn out their lights to preserve our night skies. "In order for this to work," she told us back then, "we need more participation."
Time has marched on, and Jennifer is now a graduate student studying Spanish literature at the University of Virginia. "I am still very much interested in astronomy!" she tells me. "On the first and third Fridays of the month, I volunteer at the UVa's McCormick Observatory for public night, where people can come look through the 26-inch refractor." She didn't end up pursuing astronomy as a career, but then again few of us ever do. "I know it will always be a huge part of my life," Barlow assures me, "and I'll always have a deep appreciation of the night sky."
Be honest: how many of you have ever heard of National (now International) Dark-Sky Week? What does it take for an idea like hers, arguably a very good one, to gain popularity?
For comparison, you've probably heard of — and maybe even participated in — last month's Earth Hour. Begun in 2007 by the Australian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, the idea of turning down/off the lights for one symbolic hour has become a worldwide phenomenon. Earth Hour's website boasts that it had participants in more than 100 countries; here in the U.S., even parts of the gaudy Las Vegas Strip went dark this year.
So why hasn't IDSW become more popular? After all, there are something like 700 astronomy clubs in the U.S. alone and maybe another 1,000 worldwide. Wouldn't this be a perfect time to take the dark-sky message to the public, to people who've heard of light pollution and would be sympathetic to the cause?
Here's my take: everyday citizens, and even amateur astronomers themselves, are becoming saturated with organized "celebrations" of astronomy. This isn't to say that 2009's International Year of Astronomy wasn't worth the effort — we should bring the wonderment of professional and amateur astronomy to every corner of the world. Indeed, the success of the IYA has spawned an encore of sorts, Global Astronomy Month, which is going on right now.
These special cases aside, it's clear that the number of public-targeted outreach efforts has swollen in recent years. Topping the list is the granddaddy of such events, Astronomy Day. Begun in California during the 1970s, "A-Day" is now coordinated by the Astronomical League. This year's observance is coming up soon, April 23rd. Yet as of today, only 20 clubs have notified the League that they plan to have events this year. Surely others have something in the works, but how would someone find out about them?
This year has already seen a number of other broad-based celebrations. Back in March there was Globe At Night, followed in quick succession by International Sidewalk Astronomy Night and Earth Hour. Later this year (October 16th) will be a second Astronomy Day and perhaps another Great World Wide Star Count.
All of these efforts are worthwhile. But is anyone really paying attention to them? Did you, or will you, participate? Let me know your thoughts via the comment section below.