Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: When last I saw the stars

This week’s Futures story marks the welcome reappearance of Jeff Hecht with his story When last I saw the stars. Jeff is no stranger to Futures — his first story for us, Directed energy, appeared in 2006. His next story, Operation Tesla, appeared in the first Futures anthology and he has since also tackled topics as diverse as quantum physics, Neanderthal genomics, cold fusion, time travel, dark energy and smart living. His story Event horizon appeared in last year’s Futures 2 anthology. Here, Jeff explains what inspried his latest tale — as ever, it is advisable to read the story first.

Writing When last I saw the stars

I discovered astronomy when my father gave me a one-inch refracting telescope when I was 11, but the seeing wasn’t very good in the series of light-polluted eastern US suburbs where we lived. I did not see the Milky Way or the full splendor of the sky until a decade later when I had my own car and could drive to explore wild areas with dark skies. I was awed by the sweep of the Galaxy stretching across the sky.

These days my wife and I spend a week each summer at a lakeside cabin in rural Maine, relaxing, paddling around and watching wildlife. On a clear dark night, I like to lie on the dock looking up at the Milky Way, and to use my binoculars to reveal the sea of stars that blur together to the unaided eye. Last July, I enjoyed one particularly clear, sharp and glorious night.

We returned to our home in the Boston suburbs late in the evening two days later, and I immediately noticed that the city had installed new street lights. They had been talking about replacing the old high-pressure sodium lamps with LED bulbs, and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. I also noticed that the sky was a bit hazy, but was too tired to pay much attention.

Over the next few evenings, I realized something had changed. The new street lights were so bright they created a harsh bluish glare, making my front yard so bright that I could almost read at night. Observing had never been very good in the yard, but the warm, moist summer air scattered so much light from the new street lamps that only a couple of stars were visible in the night sky. A little research confirmed the problem was the strong blue emission from the LEDs, which is scattered much more than the yellowish light from the older lamps, making the night sky brighter and hiding most of the stars.

That’s how the story began. It evolved further as I thought about the wonderful telescope technology that lets us see distant galaxies in amazing clarity and detail — but only shows tiny pieces of the sky at a time. How can we appreciate the Universe as a whole if we can see only a little bit of it at a time? It’s like trying to comprehend the sweep of geological time shown in the strata of the Grand Canyon by looking at a small photograph of a single rock.

With that in mind, I looked backwards and forwards, and let Big Helen and Little Helen tell the story from viewpoints separated by two generations.


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