Saturday, September 27, 2014

Now Available 2nd Edition eBook: Deconstructing Time, 2nd Edition: Illustrated Essay-Blogs About the Human Experience of Time

I have put together all of the blogs from the first and second years of Deconstructing Time into one eBook. I have also made two versions of this eBook: a standard eBook (epub) which requires an eReader (see links to free eReaders below) and looks like a real book OR a PDF version which you can download and read in Adobe Acrobat or even online on some websites where I have made it available.

I have also posted much of my work at the excellent site where you can find both copies of this eBook along with many other articles and eBooks that I have authored.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

New findings about animal senses are being announced in the scientific media on a regular basis. In only the last month, for example, it was reported in National Geographic that: Elephants Have 2,000 Genes for Smell, Most Ever Found and Bats Set Their Internal Compass at Dusk, A First Among Mammals. In addition, about a year ago, National Geographic reported that Dung Beetles Navigate Via the Milky Way, First Known in Animal Kingdom

In all three reports the findings were groundbreaking with phrases like "first known" and "most ever."

The range and sensitivity of senses and the different information being sensed -- in all of the animal kingdom -- is mind boggling and goes far beyond the traditional five human senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight. National Geographic, for example, wrote, "Greater mouse-eared bats set their internal magnetic compass using the pattern of light polarization -- light that vibrates in one direction." 

Human ears (left) with stereo capability can hear a broad range of sound but other animals have more complex and sensitive ears and can hear a wider or different range of frequencies. This young antelope (middle) has large ears which it can move to focus sounds. Bats (right) depend on their antennae-like ears to determine distances using echolocation, i.e. bouncing changing sounds off of objects.

But understanding animal senses does not stop with the raw data that is sensed. Often this data is processed by the animal's brain, making it much more sensitive. So while a dog has 300 million smell sensors vs. 6 million for humans (a factor of 50), it also has proportionally 40 times more of its brain devoted to analyzing smell than human beings. This means that a dog is 10,000 times more sensitive to smell than humans according to the latest research reported by NOVA on PBS.

Human smell (left) is one of our weakest senses, far surpassed by dogs (middle) who are 10,000 times more sensitive and bears (right) whose ability to smell is 7 times more sensitive than dogs.

Senses are also used in combination with other abilities of an animal, such as the duck-billed platypus who can sense tiny electric impulses in its prey -- and then can zero in on the location by moving its bill in a sweeping manner.

"The platypus can determine the direction of an electric source, perhaps by comparing differences in signal strength across the sheet of electroreceptors. This would explain the characteristic side-to-side motion of the animal's head while hunting." (
But defining and describing animal senses is only part of how senses operate in a living organism, which brings us to the classic subjective/objective debate. While the stimuli that a sense perceives is clearly outside the organism, the way that the stimuli is interpreted and acted on is determined by the animal, i.e. it is subjective.

With human eyes for example:
"Almost all higher order features of vision are influenced by expectations based on past experience. This characteristic extends to color and form face and object recognition...and to motion and spatial awareness..."

Eyesight is probably the strongest human sense (left) with full color stereoscopic vision and a remarkable ability for edge detection. But other animals such as eagles (middle) have 3.6 times the human visual acuity. Some insects (right) have a compound eye with a fisheye view (180 degrees) of the world that can see objects in focus both near and far at the same time.

In addition, many parts of the brain are often involved in processing the data that is sensed. With face recognition, for example. 
"Until now, scientists believed that only a couple of brain areas mediate facial recognition. However scientists have discovered that an entire network of cortical areas work together to identify faces.'This research will change the types of questions asked going forward because we are not just looking at one area of the brain," said Nestor...lead author of the study. "Now, scientists will have to account for the system as a whole...:"
This means a sound that is objectively 261.6 Hz and 70 decibels will have a different meaning for a human than for a mouse, for example. This sound is middle C or a musical note played at the normal volume on a radio. To a human being it would carry a musical meaning, perhaps reminding him or her of a sweet song but to a mouse it might be a warning that a human was nearby.

And what is my point in this blog about the human experience of time? 

I believe that humans have a unique sense, a sense of time that only we possess. And given the wide range of animal senses, it should not be surprising that we might have a sense that other animals do not have. In addition we have the largest brain relative to our body size, a brain which we now know is quite flexible (neuroplasticity). It is capable of storing memories, imagining future events and learning and working with concepts such as long term time both past and future. I believe that this unique sense of time is the principle reason we have become the dominant species on the planet. 


Scientific findings have confirmed that there are unique parts of the human brain that deal with time.
"This ability to hold on to a piece of information temporarily in order to complete a task is specifically human. [ED: my emphasis] It causes certain regions of the brain to become very active, in particular the pre-frontal lobe. This region, at the very front of the brain, is highly developed in humans. It is the reason that we have such high, upright foreheads, compared with the receding foreheads of our cousins the apes. Hence it is no surprise that the part of the brain that seems most active during one of the most human of activities [ED: short term memory] is located precisely in this prefrontal region that is well developed only in human beings."Perhaps the most extreme example of short-term memory is a chess master who can explore several possible solutions mentally before choosing the one that will lead to checkmate."  SHORT-TERM MEMORY': McGill University, Montreal, Canada


I think it is quite possible that the human brain's unique ability to consider future actions in the short term became a model for time itself. This short term understanding of time could have been developed and expanded through language and symbolism to include time in the long term. So the skill of considering whether to go right or left in the heat of a hunt could -- over thousands of years -- be extended to considering whether to go to the river or the mountains by the next full moon. 

The problem with complex, sophisticated time perception in humans is that it is not based on a specific sensory organ. Moreover, it is inextricably tied to language and symbols which have given us the tools to conceptualize time and to work with time. 

MRI of human brain. (
Perception not based on a specific sensory organ

Chronoception refers to how the passage of time is perceived and experienced. Although the sense of time is not associated with a specific sensory system, the work of psychologists and neuroscientists indicates that human brains do have a system governing the perception of time, composed of a highly distributed system involving the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and basal ganglia.
NOTE: It is quite significant that the most used noun in the English language is *time* according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, with the words year, day and life not far behind. While I can document this for English, I don't have the resources to document this in other languages -- but I assume that time is the most used noun in other languages as well.
While we cannot go back tens of thousands of years to reconstruct how a long term sense of time came about, there is perhaps another way to understand how it developed. When our children are young, they only live in the moment, but over years, especially as a result of education, they learn a long term sense of time. This process occurs starting with childhood, continues until adulthood and can be observed and studied.
Measures of performance on tests of working memory increase continuously between early childhood and adolescence; theorists have argued that the growth of working-memory capacity is a major driving force of cognitive development.

School Teaches Cultural Assumptions About Time

During the twenty year 'long childhood' of humans, young people learn their culture's expectations about time. While I will write a full blog about this, suffice it to say students in school learn about time more than any other subject. They learn to arrive on time, to not be late to each of their classes and to manage time such as doing their homework or studying for a final exam. These time demands become more stringent as a student gets older.


So what exactly is this different sense of time, you might ask? Well, it turns out it is quite simple. We are the only animal that understands 'when'. 

But don't take my word for it, read the detailed article, Are Animals Stuck in Time?, that compares the animal sense of time to the human sense of time. The article concludes that in fact animals are stuck in time whereas we humans can work with and manipulate time. 

Humans are not 'stuck in time' because understanding 'when' allows us to time-travel back to our past and also to an imagined future. It allows us remember our personal story and to shape ourselves and our civilization. Furthermore it allows us to take control, to plan for the future based on our knowledge of the past. 

The TARDIS time machine from the science fiction TV show, Dr. Who
"People can time-travel cognitively because they can remember events having occurred at particular times in the past (episodic memory) [ED: e.g. the sense of when] and because they can anticipate new events occurring at particular times in the future. The ability to assign points in time to events arises from human development of a sense of time and its accompanying time-keeping technology." William RobertsAre Animals Stuck in Time?
As we go though our lives, we order and organize what we do with a sense of 'when':  when in the past, when in the present and when in the future.
Take, for example, this very simple sentence that anyone of us might say -- yet which is extremely sophisticated:
"When I finish this job in about an hour, I will be done for the day."
This sentence which includes past, present, future and future perfect (a past that is in the future at the present time but will be past at a future point), is something we humans understand, but cannot be understood by any other animal.
However, I believe that we have made a critical mistake in our thinking. Most people -- in fact virtually all people I have talked to -- think of time as an objective condition that exists independently.

While time does exist objectively -- the sun will rise every morning no matter what we do -- our sense of time is particularly and perhaps peculiarly human. The way that we work with time, remember time, conceive of time is related to the way that our brains function. 

Therefore while the objective nature of time can be sensed, humans deal with it in a subjective manner. For example, as I have pointed out in my blog about 'human meta-time', we humans have the unique ability to move in a virtual world of space and time at warp speed. We can travel in our minds from past and current events and past and current houses, schools and jobs to places and activities we imagine we will do soon in the present and in the future.

And although civilization has developed a highly sophisticated way of marking and telling time such as clocks and calendars, when people remember the past it is rare that they can give dates. Instead they relate the past to things that happened before and after, i.e. when something occurred in their personal history. So our personal memory is not tied to the artificial time-telling and timekeeping devices of our cultures but rather the natural human sense of memory. See William Roberts, Are Animals Stuck in Time?
While we have all learned to live with clocks and show up on time, our personal sense of 'when' is not tied to man-made artificial timekeeping.
My point is that our inborn human sense of 'when' is separate from the man-made clocks and calendars that rule our workaday lives. Understanding when is a major part of being human. 'When' is our own personal story, knowing 'when' and how things happened in the past is how we became what we are, and thinking about 'when' in the future maps out who we hope to be.


The concept of 'when' adds a new dimension to time. Time is not just one dimensional, i.e. always in the moment or subject to an immediate need, or two dimensional, i.e. cyclical such as breakfast and dinner, night and day, and yearly migrations -- which are the way time is perceived by all the other animals. Instead 'when' adds a third dimension to time, a linear dimension of past, present and future.  We are the only animal that perceives and uses this dimension of time.

Data that is sensed is often multidimensional but not every animal can detect all of the dimensions. Sharks not only have a far better sense of smell which can detect a small amount of blood in the ocean 1/3 of a mile away but also a more dimensional sense of smell than humans have. Once having sensed the presence of blood, for example, they can locate the direction of the source of the blood with their two nares (snouts) in much the same way that our two ears are used to locate the source of a sound.
"Sharks smell through a pair of nostril-like holes, called nares...When its olfactory sensors detect the odor of a potential catch, the shark will turn into the current that is carrying the chemical. In addition, a shark's olfactory talents are so refined that it can often tell which of its nares is getting the stronger scent signal, guiding it even more precisely toward its prey."

As I pointed out in my blogs about moderncentric thinking (the often superior attitude modern people have about historic cultures), we humans are also guilty of humancentric thinking. We, unknowingly, have assumed that animals possess the same basic senses we have -- only with some changes. Yet if we want to really understand how animals sense, we need to see the world from their point of view. For example, how does a dolphin perceive its world? I won't say 'see' because even though sight may be involved, the echolocation ability of dolphins goes far beyond anything we have experienced either as humans or in our labs and perhaps beyond anything we can yet imagine.

"A recent discovery we made is that dolphins appear capable of directly perceiving the shapes of objects through echolocation. Prior to this finding, it had been generally assumed that dolphins learned to identify and recognize objects through echolocation by a process of associative learning -- by comparing the echoes returning from targets with the visual appearance of those targets."
"The sounds they [ED: dolphins] hear create a kind of holographic image in their minds...they perceive echoes as 3-D shapes and textures...Their ultrasonic clicks penetrate flesh, giving them an X-ray view of your bones and innards."

Understanding other types of animal senses has led to major scientific breakthroughs in the past, such as the development of radar which came about in part due to the study of how bats navigated in the dark and which also led to the development of sonar and ultrasound technology. (

And once we can see the world from the point of view of a different species, we may begin to understand our own world better. This is because the particular senses we humans possess have led us to build this world that we live in.

Because humans have hands that are free along with good vision, 
eye-hand skills have been critical to the creation of civilization. (

Because of our intelligence, we have been able to enhance our ability to sense through our technology. In this photo from the 1920's, a man is listening to the radio 
through ear phones, listening to music that is being played hundreds of miles away. (


The incredibly intuitive ancient Greeks said most of what I have written about the human sense of time through their mythology. 

Detail: "The creation of man by Prometheus. Marble relief, Italy, 3rd century CE." Louvre Museum, Paris, France. ( 


"Prometheus was said to be wise and possessed the gift of foresight and often considered what would be needed several years in the future." 

The brother of Prometheus, Epimetheus, who was rash and impulsive, was given the job of creating the animals, fishes and birds. Prometheus, a god who was wise and had the power of foresight, took his time making man out of clay. Yet when it came to giving man attributes, it turned out that this brother of Prometheus had already given most qualities away. 

 "Epimetheus began by giving the best traits to the animals — swiftness, courage, cunning, stealth, and the like — and he wound up with nothing to give to man. So Prometheus took the matter in hand and gave man an upright posture like the gods."

Yet since the natural qualities of fur, flight and strength etc. and had been taken, Prometheus went a step further to help mankind. He famously stole fire from the gods.

"Fire was bestowed upon mankind by Prometheus and with it came the beginning of civilization. Prometheus taught man how to craft tools from iron ore. He showed them how to plant crops and live through agriculture. Man learnt to craft weapons to defend themselves from wild animals. With fire they learnt to survive cold winters and defy the seasons. With fire man began to thrive and became superior to the animals of the wild."

In stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus also taught humans how to think ahead because starting a fire, keeping a fire going, cutting wood for the winter -- all took forethought, the skill needed to master time.

By stealing fire from the gods, teaching men crafts and agriculture, Prometheus, the god of forethought, gave man the gift of long term time, a quality more powerful than claws and sharp teeth. He taught humans about planning, about steps in a process, about the concept of 'when'. So only humans were given the ability to understand this dimension of time -- something the creatures impulsively made by his brother, Epimetheus, did not have.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

70th Birthday: Ashes and Diamonds

Today I turn 70. It is a milestone -- a point of no return. Clearly I have fewer miles ahead than I have behind. Which, of course, sets me to thinking about what I have done with my life.

The Polish movie Ashes and Diamonds makes the point that we never know whether our contributions will turn to ashes or be recovered by others as shining diamonds. 

For most of my life I have tried to add to the human dialogue. I believe I have a number of things to say with a unique perspective. I would like to think that I have made some important points in this blog of 42 in-depth postings and also in my other publications and eBooks.

But I will never know if my work is seen as a diamond or is lost in the dust and ashes of time. Nevertheless, if there is a chance that this could add to the human pool of knowledge, the human discussion, it is well worth the trouble. 

I do know this: If I do not put my ideas out, my thoughts will never have a chance of being heard. It's sort of a lottery of ideas. As a lottery player says, "I probably won't win, but I have absolutely no chance if I don't buy a ticket."

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So often you are as a blazing torch,
With flames of burning rags 
Falling about you -- 
Consuming all that you cherish.

You do not know if these flames
Will bring freedom or death.

Yet as your ashes fall into the abyss,
Could there be buried under the dirt 
The glory of a starlit diamond? 
-- A morning star --
The dawning of an everlasting triumph?
Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)
NOTE: I did not like the translations of this poem in English, so with apologies to Cyprian Norwid -- since I write poetry myself and have translated poems in French and Spanish -- I freely improvised taking the best lines/words from four different English translations, then added my own ideas and made my own English version. Here are the links to the various English translations that I found plus the original poem in Polish.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5 -- the original Polish]
Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), Daguerreotype

In a positive irony, Cyprian Norwid and his work suffered the same fate as he described in his now famous poem. Ignored during his lifetime, almost forgotten for seventy years after his death, his work and this poem were rediscovered in the 20th century. This particular poem resurfaced to be the inspiration for a Polish novel and then a Polish movie made in 1958 -- when Poland was under Soviet domination. The movie, Ashes and Diamonds, spoke to the soul of the Polish nation and is now considered, by some, to be one of the best films ever made.


My interpretation: 
In the end the only freedom is to act and in this action to find meaning -- and by acting I include writing and ideas. No one will ever know the ripple effect of their actions far into the future. But acting with the best of intentions is the most today, in the present, that we can offer and expect.

I am a great believer in the power of art as a positive force. As we know many artists have spoken to future generations without being acknowledged during their own time. For example, JS Bach's compositions were not well admired during his lifetime and after his death his music was considered old fashioned -- so much of it was lost. Yet today he is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. I think an artist does not always create for the present, often he/she creates for a future audience the artist will never know.
The gravestone of the beloved actor Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean, who played the lead in Ashes and Diamonds and who died tragically in 1967 at the age of 39. (


Allegory of the First Partition of Poland in 1772.

Perhaps better than any nation in Europe, the Poles understand uncertainty and oppression. Starting in 1772 they were partitioned by the more powerful adjacent countries of Germany and Russia (and also Austria). In WW II Poland was conquered by Nazi Germany and then Stalinist Russia who held Poland under its control until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989. Except for a brief period after WW I when Poland was free, the Poles have been fighting for their independence for almost 200 years. Nevertheless they have kept their identity and their sense of who they are intact -- which includes one of the first societies to tolerate different religious beliefs and also different ethnic groups. Now today they are free and independent -- after numerous uprisings against their oppressors that in the past had only led to defeat. However, throughout this history their faith in art and creation seemed to sustain them with artists like Chopin -- along with an 800 year-old literary tradition. The movie Ashes and Diamonds was filmed while under Soviet domination. Will the Poles continue to remain free or be oppressed again? Ashes or diamonds?
"Wajda [ED: director of Ashes and Diamonds] has frequently remarked upon the special role of the artist in Polish culture: the political conscience of a nation during long periods when politics could not be openly and honestly discussed. He has also noted that Polish artists have fulfilled themselves not only in their art but in their participation in history. [ED: such as Paderewski, a famous pianist, who also became prime minister]."
Civilian killed by the Nazi Luftwaffe during the invasion of Poland in 1939.  (

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Light Pollution Is Blotting Out the Stars

As I have written, our moderncentric point of view  makes it hard to understand some simple basic facts about the history of human development. 

For example, until several hundred years ago virtually all towns and cities, large and small, were dark at night -- quite dark. Nevertheless, even with the introduction of street lighting in Paris and London about 300 years ago, the candle lamps were dim and only on main roads. And although cities became better lit by the 19th century, these lights did not wash out the sky until recently -- about 50 years ago.

While doing research for my blogs, I realized that our ever present electric lighting has blinded us to the fact that for most of human history, we humans had a clear view of the stars at night -- no matter where we lived. Interest in the stars and constellations goes back tens of thousands of years -- possibly hundreds of thousands of years. This means that until the rise of the modern well lit world, the stars were familiar and important to the average person -- whether a cave dweller in Paleolithic times, a Roman in the Roman Empire or a Victorian in London. 

Even using conservative estimates, our modern lighted environment has been part of the human lifestyle for about 1/10 of 1% of the life of our species -- i.e., only 300 years of the last 200,000 years since we (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved.

As I have written I believe Paleolithic people would have been able to read the stars like a sacred book, a book they had seen since birth. However, modern scholars often dismiss this idea -- in part because they are unfamiliar with the night sky, blinded as they are by the bright lights of today.

This is important because it is my belief that the original clock and calendar were  based on the stars, the moon, the planets and the constellations. Yet many assume that once the great cities of Rome and Greece had risen, the streets were somewhat well lit and consequently people paid much less attention to the night sky. But this is totally false.

No less an authority than the British Museum had this to say about ancient Greek culture in their "Summary of the Greeks' relation to the stars:"
"The stars were used as gigantic clocks to measure the changes in the seasons."
My Point Is This 
For most of history people had a clear view of the stars and the moon which were a point of reference -- a nightly clock and a monthly, seasonal and yearly calendar. Also because the cities were not lighted, people's eyes were often well adjusted to seeing in the dark -- and so the night sky was an ever present background. NOTE: This fact is critical because eyes that have adjusted to darkness can see many more stars. 
Yet, our picture of ancient times is often quite different. 


Our moderncentric view has been shaped in part by paintings and Hollywood movies. We think historic cities were not dark because the movies have shown us well lit nighttime scenes. Yet the night images we saw in such movies as Ben Hur and Gladiator and the paintings beginning with the 16th century were not realistic.

In the fictional historic worlds created by Hollywood, light seemed to be everywhere. So in this screenshot from the trailer for the 1951 film Quo Vadis (left) Deborah Kerr was seen in light that illuminated the background and delicately highlighted her face -- all from Roman lamps! In reality the light was probably more like the picture on the right, where the background was dark and her face was lit in a much starker manner. ( NOTE: The picture on the right is my own reworking of the original trailer screenshot and my best guess about the actual lighting in ancient Rome.

Depictions of historic time periods often show bright lamps and candles that illuminate wide areas. Yet this is not accurate. While this may seem like a minor point, it is not. As a photographer, I know how light operates. Light diminishes according the to square of distance, which means that light falloff is quite rapid.

Quote from Wikipedia: "The intensity (or illuminance or irradiance) of light or other linear waves radiating from a point source (energy per unit of area perpendicular to the source) is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source; so an object (of the same size) twice as far away, receives only one-quarter the energy (in the same time period)." ( 

This is a completely unrealistic painting in terms of lighting. In this painting one candle is brightly shining on the man in the bed and the two women several more feet away. The intensity of the light does not change with the distance from the candle. It is images like these that have given us a false picture of how light operates. (

This is a much more realistic picture of how light works. The torch on the left illuminates the person it is closest to and then the light falls off rapidly as the distance increases. (

If we want a realistic understanding of people in the past, we need to know that they spent much of their time in near darkness -- a darkness they were accustomed to and that they understood. 

So just how dark were the cities? Let's take ancient Rome as one example.
This is in fact one of the characteristics which most markedly distinguishes Imperial Rome from contemporary cities: when there was no moon, its streets were plunged in impenetrable darkness. No oil lamps lighted them, no candles were affixed to the walls; no lanterns were hung over the lintel of the doors, save on festive occasions...Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life In Ancient Rome: The People And The City At The Height The Empire 

Roman bronze oil lamp. Oil was poured into the filler hole in the middle and the wick came out of the nozzle. (
But in addition, the illumination that did exist was from a variety of oils (olive, fish, sesame, whale and nut oils, for example) used in lamps, then later from candles and even later from kerosene. All of these created light in the red end of the spectrum. Candle light, for example, is 1,850 K putting it in the far red end. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog faint red light does little harm to night vision -- meaning that people would have been able to see the stars clearly on a nightly basis, with little or no adjustment needed. As a result the night sky was not just background or unimportant, but something people paid attention to. Like today's celebrity stars, I suspect Romans discussed the movement and changes in the heavenly stars and planets just about every day and educated citizens commented on anything unusual -- not unlike our news stories now. 

And how about the cities of Europe after ancient times?

Around 1590 probably in London, Shakespeare wrote the following, showing that he had a clear view of the night sky -- one that his theater audience would be familiar with:
The poet's eye, in a frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. 
William Shakespeare, 
A Midsummer Night's Dream, circa 1590

Candles became widely available in Europe around the 13th century.  In the 17th century cities began to install candle street lights.
"In 1667, Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, using wax candles in glass the end of the century, more than 50 of Europe's major towns and cities were lit at night." Quoted from the URL next.
While street lighting began in Paris in 1667, it was only from November to March and only on main streets. Yet by 1700 it had been extended to nine months of the year. The idea of street lighting with candles spread to other cities, yet many only lit their lamps on moonless nights. And although candles helped, the general lighting was still quite dim.
Information paraphrased from: 
Joan DeJean, How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

A painting of Frederick the Great of Prussia playing the flute. While the best quality approx. 50 candles -- pictured here in the mid-18th century -- were a lavish expense, the total light output was about as much as one 100 watt incandescent bulb of today. (

Although there were street lamps in major cities, they were quite faint. London was so dim in the early Victorian era that boys called link-boys (bottom left) made a living by carrying a candle or torch at night to guide people to their destination. The picture above is of a woman arriving home in her 'sedan chair' -- with a street lamp behind her, a footman with a candle and a link-boy with a torch. Picture of contemporary London life from Dicken's Pickwick Club 1837. (

Another unrealistic painting. The bright light for this well lit coffee house comes from only a couple of candles. (

Gas lighting in Paris in 1889. Gas lighting became common by the end of the 19th century. Yet although brighter than candles, it was relatively dim compared to today's electric lights and also burned in the red end of the spectrum. So the stars and the night sky were still visible in the 19th century and were an integral part of people's lives up until a few years ago. Countrywide electric lighting did not take over until after World War II. (


Today in just about any city of any size, electric lights blot out the sky. Even in the country area-lights have begun to take over. Light pollution is everywhere. As a result the stars of the night sky are lost to us. 
Google translation from the French Wikipedia entry about light pollution: With the emergence and rapid spread of the light bulb and the electric network, public lighting became widespread in the world, producing in the 1940s an early bright halo, reported by astronomers as being a hindrance to their work. The concept of "light pollution " was born (under that name) in the late 1980s.
Today few people know the constellations or keep track of the phases of the moon or are aware of the summer or winter solstice or the spring or fall equinox -- things that were essential to our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years. The stars and moon were the original clock -- one that we have exchanged for an artificial man-made system of timekeeping that is virtually removed from the natural cycles of the Earth.

Here is a quote from a discussion group about why astronomy is not important:
Science & Mathematics > Astronomy & Space
I think that most people are focused on a few things that are critical to their own existence. For some, that means family; for others, a career. In those specific areas, they are generally articulate and knowledgeable...What this means is that astronomy is a backwater in the knowledge pool for most folks. They could understand it if it was a priority, but it's not. 
If we wonder why so many urban people today feel alienated, one reason could be that they are no longer in touch with the cycles of the Earth and the Sun and the natural sense of time told to us by the stars.

Coney Island's Luna Park, an amusement park in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century (1903), when electric light was still a novelty. (

 NYC around 1935 from the top of a construction site. (

 Times Square today in NYC. (

Satellite composite of lights at night on the Earth. (

Map showing light pollution in Europe: red is the most, yellow next. (

 The same region of sky near a town of about 200 people (top) and near a city of about 400,000 people (bottom) in Utah, USA. The light pollution near any urban area now blots out much of the sky. (