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Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Monday, 16 November 2009

In praise of real darkness

The Scottish site is the first dark sky park outside the US

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

A spot in Scotland has picked up an international award, confirming it as one of the best places for stargazing in the world. But what is the importance of being able to see the stars?

The harsh orange glow of sodium street lights and blinking of lights on 747s are about the only sights in the night-time sky for the average town-dweller in Britain.

The urban spread is such these days that even in the countryside, the dark delights of shooting stars and sprawling galaxies are muted by light pollution from towns and cities.

But those deprived of real darkness now have at least one destination in the UK to head for - Galloway Forest Park. The 300sq mile Forestry Commission site has been commended for its dark skies and named one of the best places in the world for stargazing.

The only limit to what you can see is how good your eyes are
Steve Owens
Unesco International Year of Astronomy

Some may question why anyone would want to plunge themselves into a black abyss, with only the speckled flecks of brightness from thousands of light years away to feast their eyes on. But for others, a glimpse of what dwells in pitch-black sky goes some way to unlocking the mysteries of life itself.

In short, gazing upwards can prompt some profound inward gazing too.

"I saw dark skies and was totally hooked at a very young age," says Steve Owens, who is UK coordinator for the Unesco International Year of Astronomy.

"It's something quite primitive in human nature. Humans are inquisitive creatures, they like to ask questions and it makes you think about your place in the universe," says Mr Owens, speaking from Galloway Forest Park.

"It can seem like problems on Earth are big, but when you come here, you realise your place in the world is quite small. It does provoke deeper thoughts, it inspires people to be more introspective."

'Wow' moment

It is estimated about 7,000 stars can be spotted from the Galloway park, compared with a paltry few hundred, at most, in Britain's towns and cities.

God created day and night
Light pollution - less of a problem in the old days

From the prime location of the park, the Milky Way and the nearest galaxy to our own, Andromeda, can be glimpsed with the naked eye. It also provides ring-side seats for spectacular meteor showers.

This sky there is "as dark as anything you will ever see" says Mr Owens.

"Even if you drive half-an-hour outside a city you can't see as much. When you bring someone to see a sky as dark as this you get a real 'wow' moment. People get hooked on astronomy after just one experience out here.

"The only limit to what you can see is how good your eyes are. When you've been outside for half-an-hour and your eyes become used to the light, more and more will appear."

But the spread of artificial light - and the way it has eroded our sense of real darkness - means most people don't give a split second of thought to stars in the sky, says Mr Owens, "whereas it was a big part of people's lives just a couple of hundred years ago".

The issue of light pollution has become a rallying cause for environmentalists in recent years, with the British Astronomical Society running a Campaign for Dark Skies. But in just seven years between 1993 and 2000, light pollution in England increased by 24% while the amount of "truly dark night sky" fell from 15% to 11%, according to the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

But it's not just a pretty view of the night sky that light pollution is interfering with. Some scientists think the 24/7 glow that many of us live with gives rise to health and environmental problems.

Unceasing light is thought to disrupt the body's natural internal clock, its circadian rhythms of sleep and wakefulness.

"Research seems to suggest this has a detrimental affect," Mr Owen says.

And it's not just humans who are experiencing the side effects. From turtles and terrapins in the Caribbean, whose breeding patterns have been shown to be disrupted, to nocturnal creatures such as bats, light can affect where the insects they feed upon gather. It can also make it easier for predators to prey upon them.

"We're only beginning to understand the impact this can have on animals."

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