Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum from Professor Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

  I'd first like to welcome the Select Committee's decision to devote some of its precious time to the issue of "light pollution", and to express my thanks for the opportunity to offer oral evidence.

  The issues have been well addressed in the written submissions from the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the British Astronomical Association (BAA) and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE), and in the evidence from individual experts—among whom I would single out Bob Mizon, who has for many years been a leading advocate of the astronomical case for "dark skies".

  Rather than repeating the cogent arguments and specific proposals made in these submissions, I would like to emphasise the breadth and diversity of the case—interest in the topic extends far beyond the astronomical community, as symbolised by the key involvement of the CPRE in the recently-launched campaign.

  Van Gogh painted his "Starry Night" in the same spirit as his portrayals of sunflowers and cornfields—the night sky is part of everyone's shared environment. Indeed it is a uniquely universal feature: it has been viewed and wondered at, essentially unchanged, by all cultures throughout human history. But unless we live in exceedingly isolated parts of the UK, we are now deprived of this experience.

  There is a substantial and expanding amateur astronomy community, just as there is a large community of amateur botanists or ornithologists. But goodwill towards the campaign extends far wider—indeed, it surely has the support of all who care about our natural environment in the broadest sense. All of us—not just those who are keen birdwatchers—would feel environmentally deprived if songbirds disappeared from our parks and gardens, and if "nature" wasn't one of our formative experiences from childhood. Likewise, it is an impoverishment if children grow up without ever seeing a "real" starry sky in the way earlier generations did: astronomy and space have a special appeal and an effective role in stimulating general interest in science.

  The case for controlling light pollution is a multi-faceted one: it has scientific, educational, environmental, aesthetic and economic dimensions. Modest changes in the planning and regulatory system could stem—and indeed reverse—the current trend. Such measures would certainly earn the gratitude of the next generation and would surely command broad support today.

May 2003

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