[Viewpoint]Starry, starry night

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[Viewpoint]Starry, starry night

Nothing can show more starkly the gap in economic power between South and North Korea than a satellite photo taken over the Korean Peninsula in the middle of any given night. In the South, the whole of the Seoul metropolitan area and other cities penetrate the darkness with brilliant illumination. To the North, only Pyongyang has any lighting.
Seeing such a photo recently reminded me of the sharply different fortunes of the South and the North. But it also made me think of something else ― for residents of brightly lit South Korean cities, it has become very difficult to observe the stars in the sky. We are cut off from that part of nature. I am not saying that development and progress are bad, but no matter how much the world may change, the stars and the moon are as valuable as the sun for human beings.
I feel especially sorry for children growing up in this time of perpetual daylight. Adults at least have the memories of our childhood, of a time when the night was dark and the sky a source of awe. I wonder whether the children of today will ever understand that even on a pitch dark night, they can find their way with a half-moon in the sky? Do they experience the feeling that the moon has been following them closely?
Even at the rural tourist resorts where we used to enjoy watching the stars during summer holidays, urbanization has caused the display to fade. We no longer have completely dark nights in the South, and we can no longer see bright stars in the sky. When did you last see the Milky Way?
In order to observe the stars you must seek out deserted fields and mountains, places where the sky above is friendly and dark and the stars feel near to us.
If you want to enjoy observing stars more closely, it would be better to visit an astronomical observatory. But nowadays, even observatories suffer from the effects of lighting in nearby towns and villages.
The Byeolmaro Astronomical Observatory in Yeongwol, Gangwon province, is the largest observatory open to the public. They did not install street lamps along the 4.5 kilometer road that winds up Mount Bongrae to the observatory in order to avoid diluting the display. But there is nothing much the observatory can do to stop search lights turned toward the sky from a nearby skyscraper.
In a big city, an observatory, by necessity, must adopt a function that is more educational, since observation is so difficult.
The observatory attached to the municipal youth training center in Seoul’s Gwangjin district cannot observe the sky lower than 45 degrees from the horizon because of light reflected from nearby apartments and shopping arcades. Daejeon Citizen’s Observatory, located in the Yuseong district in Daejeon, has the same problem. Im Sang-sun, the head of the education team at the observatory, said, “Because of street lamps, it is difficult to observe the sky lower than 30 degrees from the horizon.” But however much the stars may inspire poetry and romance, they cannot turn off the light of Gwangjin district or demand that the municipal authority throw Daejeon into darkness for the sake of star gazing.
But the Mount Bohyeon Observatory in Yeongcheon city, which is equipped with Korea’s largest reflecting telescope(with a diameter of 1.8 meters), set a good precedent by getting local residents help in astronomical observation voluntarily. The street lamps of Jeonggak Maul, or the starlight village, at the foot of the mountain, are all covered with lamp shades out of consideration for the stars. Cheonmunin Village, the astronomical observers’ village, in Hoengseong became famous for declaring itself “starlight protection zone” in 1999, urged on by the presence of a private observatory. Some residents predictably objected, fearing that land development would be banned in favor of the stars. But after a period of of conflict, the matter was resolved. Now the village street lamps have switches so the lights can be turned off to accommodate celestial objects.
Cho Hyon-bae, a painter who settled in Hoengseong in 1997 because he liked the night sky, helped create the star-friendly village. “Nowadays, children do not seem to have experienced a pitch-dark night at all,” he said. “I let children from urban areas take a walk here at night through complete darkness.”
In other countries, organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association launch campaigns to urge people to restrain from excessive nighttime illumination.
Of course there are issues of security and safety in urban areas that come into play in dimming the lights but the example of Hoengseong shows that it is possible, around rural observatories at least, to allow the night sky to shine by turning down the lights. Children, even in our prosperous and modern country, can still know how it feels to look up in wonder from the black of night to see the multitude of stars twinkling in the heavens.
That sight is a timeless wonder and if people cooperate it can be preserved for future generations to appreciate.
A star-finding competition will be held in Hoengseong tonight. This is the time of year to observe the belts of Saturn.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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