The Mast-Head: The Night Sky

A clear band of dusty white hung from above the horizon to the south, all the way to straight overhead

We pulled the car into the driveway the other night, Lisa, two of the children, and I, coming back from picking up a takeout dinner in Montauk. It was a dark night, no moon, no haze to catch the reflected light from the ground. Lisa hustled the youngest one inside to get him ready for bed. But, looking up, I told the other child to stop. “There’s the Milky Way,” I said.

“Where? Oh, yeah,” she said.

A clear band of dusty white hung from above the horizon to the south, all the way to straight overhead.

“Is that our universe?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “That’s just our galaxy. There are millions of galaxies, each one of them with millions of stars. It’s so big out there, you can hardly imagine.”

We talked for a while longer, about stars, aliens, and distant civilizations. I told her about something I had heard on the radio, that some scientists are looking for signs of atmospheric pollution from intelligent life on remote planets.

Her take was that it was obvious we are not alone in the vastness. “Anybody who thinks there are no aliens is wrong,” she said with conviction. Looking up at the sparkling stars, we considered what aliens might look like, and agreed they might not be made of the same stuff as we. She seemed all right with that idea.

We are lucky that there are still night skies here, like where we live, left unspoiled by light pouring from ill-designed fixtures. But these days, the dark places are the exception, and with a touch of haze in the air, an unnatural creeping orange spreads from the commercial centers.

East Hampton Town has reasonable rules about light pollution, although they may be less ambitious than they should be and, for the most part, unenforced. An on-again, off-again debate about giving the regulations more teeth has been under way for at least a decade. I hope it succeeds.

“I like talking about space with you,” my daughter said as we got ready to go indoors. Without a silky black sky to project our thoughts onto, I wonder if she and I would even have had the conversation.