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Chi Lives: too much light makes the city go bling 

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Late Saturday night on Rush Street hundreds of singles are out searching for heavenly bodies to trade numbers with. But for Dennis Erickson, a science teacher at the Latin School, and five members of his Sidewalk Astronomy Club, a recent evening was a chance to look at objects of a truly celestial nature.

Standing across from Melvin B's restaurant and the Cactus Bar, Erickson and his followers have trained their eyes and several telescopes on the night's quarter moon. Passersby either dodge the scopes silently or make derisive wisecracks. But Erickson smiles, inviting the curious to take a look and open their eyes not just to the stars, but to a problem he believes is destroying our quality of life: light pollution.

He means the eerie orange glow that in urban areas has replaced the natural black of the night sky. It's caused by light from unshaded street lamps, which travels skyward and scatters across dust particles. The result is a persistent haze that blocks our view of the stars and creates a host of other problems.

"More than $2 billion of electric energy is wasted each year by light being leaked to the sky instead of the ground through inefficient lamps," says Erickson. "That's more than the energy needed to solve California's energy crisis. And when streetlights are so bright you can see the bulb in them, it closes your pupils so it's harder to see criminals and easier to cause driving accidents. Using lights with less glare would actually make society safer."

Erickson says light pollution has health, environmental, and philosophical consequences. For instance, excessive glare from street lamps and security lights cuts into the darkness that is necessary for perfect sleep.

The unnatural glow disorients birds that migrate at night, causing them to stray from their flight paths and sing in the artificial daylight. It throws off the photosynthetic processes of plant life and endangers animals--for example, the reproductive cycles of sea turtles, who are afraid to nest on lit beaches.

Erickson, who's 56, became enraptured with the skies as a child growing up in far suburban Monee. His early interest in astronomy has carried over into his career at the Latin School, where in 1998 he founded the Sidewalk Astronomy Club with ten students. His goal was to provide information about light pollution and start reclaiming the night, enlisting his students to hit the sidewalks with telescopes and signs in an attempt to win people over one by one.

Three years later, Erickson has attracted the attention of innumerable pedestrians, as well as two grants from the Toyota Tapestry program, which provides 50 awards of $10,000 apiece to science teachers each year. The club has also convinced the Streets and Sanitation Department to take tentative steps toward dealing with the problem of light pollution. Following the lead of the International Dark Sky Association, of which his group is the Chicago chapter, Erickson has lobbied the city to install aluminum shades on streetlights as a stopgap until they can be fully replaced with new, efficient lights.

The cost of a new streetlight averages $300, while the shades cost $35. But whatever the solution, fixing the problem will likely take a very long time and a whole lot of money. Some signs of hope have arisen, however. Most of the city's highway lights have been replaced with hooded cut-off fixtures, which have also been installed at the museum campus, on Austin between North and Roosevelt, and--most fittingly--at the corner of North and Clark, Erickson's sky-watching spot across from the Latin School.

"People at first were afraid [our stargazing] was a panhandle, a prank, or that we're preaching religion," says Erickson. "Because there aren't many things free without a catch these days."

The Sidewalk Astronomy Club will meet for moon viewing at dusk August 23 through 30 at various locations including State and Rush, Dearborn and Division, and North and Clark. Visit the club's Web site at www.sites.netscape.net/dericksondennis for more information about dates and locations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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