Though I don’t like to admit it, being overwhelmed is a huge part of my life. When it feels like the universe is collapsing in on me, I sometimes think that a late night trip to the heart of the city will help me find inner peace. But as my eyes glaze over our twinkling city’s skyline, the bright buildings serve only as a reminder that this place is bustling. If I intend to live in it, I need to keep up.
So what if instead of navigating these hard times by the obliterating light of our metropolis, I used the glow of stars? Reader, if you’ve ever felt wistful about stargazing but never considered urban astronomy as a worthwhile hobby, read on to learn more about stargazing in the city: What makes it difficult, how it can be done, and what important benefits it can bring to you.
As an urban astronomer, a crucial first concept to understand is light pollution otherwise known as the reason why we rarely see a lot of stars in the sky. As described by the National Geographic, light pollution is “the excessive or inappropriate use of outdoor artificial light”. This artificial light clouds the night sky, leaving the wonders of the celestial sphere to shine in obscurity.
As can be expected, the city of Montréal struggles with this issue. On the interactive global light pollution map, a blurred haze of red and yellow light is spread over our hometown, signifying extreme levels of light pollution.
The issue with light pollution lies not in the fact that the city is illuminated, street lamps and other sources of light are needed for safety reasons, but rather in the impractical design of lighting structures. Street lamps, for instance, often aim more than half of their light upwards, where it is rendered completely useless and brightens the night sky beyond what is required to ensure our safety. Worse consequences of light pollution include the deaths of millions of birds due to disrupted migratory processes, and its contribution to global warming from the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide released by electricity generating power plants. This is why more efficiently designed structures are essential in decreasing the levels of light pollution in cities. Moreover, the economy suffers as well; billions of dollars are wasted on illuminating areas that do not even need the light.
So then, what are the ways we can actually observe the night sky in the glare of this bustling city? First, a good set of tools is needed. Though many celestial objects can be seen with the naked eye, like the moon, planets, and stars, a good set of binoculars is a great asset to any amateur stargazer. Most pairs of binoculars will even allow you to see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Telescopes are also indubitably the best tool for stargazing, but they are pricey and more difficult to use. To find out which stars are visible in a specific region of the world at a given time of year, one can use a starfinder map, also known as a planisphere, which can be accessed online.
Also, if you’re looking for a community of astronomers to guide you through your learning, a great resource for young students in Montreal is the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada. With centres all around the country, the RASC aims to inspire and educate anyone with an interest in astronomy through meetings and events. Conveniently, the RASC has a centre located in St-Anne-de-Bellevue, in the suburbs of our city, where members can have access to an observatory located in an area with low levels of light pollution, an array of different telescopes, and a library filled with incredible scientific resources. If the membership is affordable for you, it is definitely worth looking into.
Finally, I’ll circle back to my initial question, how would we change if we had the luxury of viewing a sky full of stars at night, instead of bright buildings and lamp posts? While there aren’t many studies conducted on the psychological benefits of stargazing, I can speak from personal experience when I say that seeing astronomical phenomena is a beautiful experience that has the power to change not only a mood, but a mindset. I have traveled across a country to see an eclipse, so I know firsthand how important it can be to look for a sense of the bigger picture in nature. Looking outside the bubble that is school and work, and choosing to connect with the sky instead, is incredibly grounding and reminds us that beyond our personal problems, there’s a vast universe out there to be discovered. Far beyond our city’s tallest skyscraper lies a whole new world, all we need to do is look higher.