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Sci Tech

What have we got to gain?

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Have you ever seen anyone urinate all over the shelves in a supermarket? No? Ok, I will return to that question via the stars.

I often ask people if they have seen the milky way. They usually answer yes and they are wrong.

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You can't see the thing because we are IN it.

The picture on the left [from] is deduced from the painstaking observations of astronomers and is a best guess at how it really looks.

It is approximately 9,460,730,472,580,080,000 kilometres across and contains about 100 billion stars. Watch this for more of the basic information.

Although from where we are standing we can't actually see the thing in its entirety, you can see part of it if you are out of town and in the mountains somewhere.

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When I was in Nepal I was living quite high up [about 2,300 metres or 7,500 feet]  and absolutely nowhere near a town. It was 4 hours of difficult trekking to the nearest phone never mind anything else.

One night we were inside having our lentils and rice [daal baat] dinner and during this it got dark outside. After we had finished we walked out and I saw something I had never seen before and unfortunately haven't seen since - the milky way.

Obviously it wasn't like the picture above. Looking around on the internet the closest naked-eye picture I could find to what we saw is this"-

It was incredible. We sat in a happy semi-awed, semi-stupefied silence for a long time just looking and ignoring the local insects who were doing their best to feed off us. The locals, who had obviously seen it before were looking, seemed accustomed to the sight but that didn't make them seem less happy to see it.

The thing that looks like a big cloud is in fact the plane of the milky way. Huge clouds of gas and dust in in our galaxy obscure the stars that are behind or in those clouds. These clouds are also where new stars are born.

Hmm, I think I feel a woods/trees argument approaching.

Light pollution robs us of what could justly be termed a birthright. When people think about what we might have to give up if we can't generate power when the oil is finished they forget what we could gain, or rediscover.

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Writers and storytellers from antiquity tended to talk about the stars a lot more than their modern counterparts do.  When you see photos like the one above, or better, see it for yourself, it is not difficult to understand why. They were not writing from an ignorant position because they didn't yet have the glories of television to write about, they were writing about the spectacular display they could see every night. This is the same display that we have denied ourselves.

Question - What does all this have to do with urinating in the supermarket?

Well, I think this problem runs parallel with the problem of the kind of people you meet that think if you pluck a piece of fruit off a tree and eat it there and then it is some kind of freakish behaviour. They seem to think it is not natural unless it has come through the supermarket. Tell them it also tastes better than what you get in the supermarket and they look at you as if you have completely taken leave of your senses. They seem to think you are going to fall over dead if you eat it.

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Scotland's Michael Greenwell has worked, at various times, as a university tutor, a barman, a DJ ("not a very good one," he clarifies), an office lackey, supermarket worker, president of a small charity, a researcher, a librarian, a volunteer worker in Nepal during the civil war there, and "some other things that were too tedious to mention." Nowadays, he explains, "I am always in (more...)

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