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Kirt Blattenberger,

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So This Is What Darkness Looks Like

So This Is What Darkness Looks Like - RF CafeAn Al Qaeda attack on the power grid was my first thought on this eve of the 9-11 anniversary. When we arrived at Erie's World of Music at 7:00 PM for Melanie to take her music lesson, we were greeted by employees telling us all lessons were cancelled due to a power outage. The lights were on when we left home 15 minutes earlier, and were still on when we got back. Isn't it odd how a music school can't function these days without power because most of the instruments use electricity? The acoustic guitars have electronic pick-ups now just like classic electric guitars, pianos are synthesized keyboards, and even the drum sets are electronic look-alikes. Having it that way facilitates keeping noise levels down during the dozen or more instruction sessions happening at any given time. It can get pretty loud in the WoM basement even with volumes turned down, which wouldn't be so bad if everyone was playing the same piece in concert, but the violins are playing Beethoven while the drummers are pounding out Twisted Sister, the piano is playing Mary Had a Little Lamb, and the saxophones are blowing Kenny G.
At around 8:30, electricity went out in our neighborhood. I walked out on the back porch (we sit on a ridge overlooking much of Erie) and could see that a wide area was without power, but there was still some glow to the north and east over the denser city area. It was the darkest I could recall at this house. My back yard is usually flooded with light from the neighbor who's dog is afraid of the dark (really annoying when I have my telescope out). We pulled out the Scrabble board and started a game by candlelight. There is a gasoline-powered 1500 W generator sitting down in my garage if needed at some point to keep the refrigerator contents from spoiling, but for now I'm enjoying the near absolute darkness that only exists during times like this. The chimes on my hand-made grandmother clock struck 10:00 when I decided to jot down a few notes for this story.

I had forgotten what dark looks like; our only other power failure occurred a couple years ago during daylight hours. It was almost shocking having to feel my way along the walls whilst seeking out a flashlight. Even with heavy curtains, blinds, and shades on the windows, our suburban environment is polluted with so much excess ambient light that you can function to some degree in any room in the house without turning on a light. The amount of light that bleeds through my front door glass is shocking, and this neighborhood is suburban, not urban.
Every house, it seems, has outside lights on from dusk until dawn (mine are all motion-sensing to avoid that). Every parking lot is illuminated brightly enough to read a book by. Kilowatt-level lights illuminate streets and highways. Immensely bright LED billboards flash messages all night long. Commercial buildings are lit to the max around their perimeters, ostensibly for security reasons. This is why I  can no longer observe star clusters and nebulae that were visiblemany decades ago when I first entered amateur astronomy as a hobby. It is also a big part of why our power grids are so heavily strained. When I read news reports of the bankrupt city of Detroit turning off a third or fourth of its street lights to save money, I wondered why so many ever needed to be on in the first place. We have resolved to find a home with dark skies.

Interestingly, the level of traffic on my street has dwindled to almost nothing over the past couple hours. I wonder if it because the otherwise drivers figure the stores and their friends' houses have no power either. Or, is it because their automatic garage door openers have no power so they can't get their cars out? It reminds me of a blonde joke about the woman who locked herself in her car and couldn't find her keys.

Earth Lights from Space (NASA photo) - RF Cafe
                                    Earth Lights from Space (NASA photo)

Posted  September 10, 2013