February 17, 2010

Random Acts of Kindness Day

This is a day to really focus on making others a little
bit happier. See if you can smile at more people, say nice things to the strangers you deal with, try to “be there” a little bit more for your friends.

You could also use this day to renew your efforts towards charities. Volunteer a few hours at a so
up kitchen, send just a little bit more money to the Red Cross for Haitian relief, or clean up a littered park. Go here for more ideas.

Also on this day...

Anniversary of First U.S. Street with Gas Lighting – 1817

On this date in 1817, the first U.S. city with gas lights (Baltimore, Maryland) finished lighting the corner of Market and Lemon Streets. There were 16 gas street lights.

(Gas lighting in London, England, preceded the Baltimore lighting, beginning in 1807.)

Before streetlights, dark streets were quite dangerous; streetlights reduced crime substantially. In an effort to make cities safer before there were streetlights, ther
e were laws that people had to put lanterns on street-facing walls or lamps in street-facing windows.

Gas street lights began to be replaced by electric lights in the late 1800s. But some streets are still lit by gas lamps. The largest example of this in Europe is probably Berlin, which has about 44,000 gas street lights. Certain parts of London, U.K., and New Orleans, Boston, and Cincinnati, U.S., remain gaslit. South Orange, New Jersey, has adopted the gas street lamp as the symbol of its town and so (of course) uses this kind of lighting on almost all of its streets.

The Dark Side of Artificial Lights

I mentioned above that city streets became safer when they were lit. I didn't mention that gas lighting made it possible to run factories far longer – even 24 hours a day! Even though humans had been “pushing back the night” with fire (campfires, torches, candles, lanterns) for years, gas and later electric lighting were a bit different—one didn't have to continually find and chop more wood or make more candles, for example, and people began to stay up later and do more and more activities later and later into the night.

Nowadays there are people who work their entire jobs at night, and there are cities that are said to never sleep. What has all this nighttime activity meant for people?

Some scientists are studying the effects of artificial lighting itself on people. Some forms of light apparently cause headaches, fatigue, and anxiety, and lighting desig
n students are learning how to create better lighting to reduce these effects.

Other scientists are studying human sleep cycles and insomnia (the inability to sleep or to get restful sleep). There is evidence that humans evolved to get sleep in a more broken-up pattern—going to sleep soon after dark (therefore much earlier than most modern people) but waking up one or several times in the “middle” of the night, sometimes for h
ours. This is not a scenario of having “trouble” sleeping—this is apparently a description of normal, pre-artificial-light sleep that is still common in societies without artificial lighting. (Periods of daytime sleep are pretty common in these societies as well.)

In most modern societies, we expect to get our sleep in one compacted burst of 6 to 8 hours, but doctors and researchers warn that many people are sleep deprived.

Another effect of artificial lights is light pollution. Astronomers—especially the amateur variety, who have smaller telescopes—find it much harder to spot interestin
g objects in the night sky when city lights cause the entire sky to glow. Some people are concerned that modern city-dwellers are cut off from the majesty and awe-inspiring night sky that all humans should be able to enjoy.

Animals, too, are affected by artificial lights.
Moths are well known to be attracted to lights and sometimes seemingly commit suicide by flying into hot lamps. This is because they evolved to navigate by using the light of the moon—and our artificial lights confuse this natural navigation system.

To understand moth navigation better, try the activity here.

Other animals that are confused by artificial lights include birds and s
ea turtle hatchlings.

Light pollution affects many organisms and ecosystems. We don't have to do without lights, but we could be smart about how our lights affect things we care about. For example, deaths of birds have been reduced by turning out or shielding certain lights on tall buildings during

Check out the light pollution photos above and on this National Geographic website.

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