Where would you least expect to find an astronomer? You might guess a cloudy coastline, where you're not likely to see the stars. Yet even places where bad weather is common have occasional clear nights. A better candidate might be the heart of a big metropolis, where artificial light drowns out starlight.
Henry Parkhurst, who died 100 years ago this week, lived in the biggest American city, New York. In the late nineteenth century, he was a court reporter by day, and an astronomer by night. He observed variable stars -- stars that slightly fade and brighten.
Parkhurst's measurements were highly regarded. They were sought out by Harvard College Observatory, the great repository of astronomical data at the time. In 1882, Parkhurst proposed a decade-long project for himself: He would systematically measure long-period variables, which change in brightness over months or years. He made his observations from his Manhattan apartment.
But unknown to Parkhurst and other New Yorkers, 1882 would change their city forever -- Thomas Edison and his electric light bulb came to town. The next year, while Parkhurst began his project, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed -- and illuminated by electric arcs. That was less than ten blocks from his telescope.
Parkhurst became the first victim of light pollution -- the brazen glow of artificial lights. Today, most astronomical research is conducted at remote observatories, far from the nearest towns.
Script by Thomas Hockey, Copyright 2007
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