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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

In the Dark

In the Dark

Author: Reilly Capps/Monday, May 5, 2014/Categories: natural history

[Photo by SWP Media]

If there was always light -- if we lived in a triple star system, say -- the Earth would too hot, and necking in cars would be weird. 

It's curious that we humans, who evolved on a planet that put us in the light for half the time and dark for half the time, always have to leave a light on. We're like kids scared of ghosts: nightlights, cell phone notification lights. We don't turn off all our house lights at night, so light weasels in from the hall, lights snakes through the window blinds. We look at dirty pictures on our smart phones when our partners aren't looking. We've dropped darkness completely, as if it were something terrible, like scurvy or slavery or Donald Sterling. We seem to long for Vegas, all over the globe. 

We used to love the night. The ancients thought the stars were divine. Modern science more or less proves it. Lucretius said that, if all the wonders of the night sky were suddenly revealed to humankind, we would collapse with wonder, and Ralph Waldo Emerson thought, like the ancients, that we would see god. 

Then, people started to think too much about it. Edmund Burke, usually a bright guy, worried that living in the dark would cause our irises to expand, trying to open up and catch more light, that this would strain our eyes., and cause headaches. (I wonder if he ever got curious when this never happened.) In the Isaac Asimov story "Nightfall," the civilizations on a planet that has six suns collapse every 2000 years, every time the suns align in a certain way. In New York City in 1977, when a blackout led to looting and burning.  

But we're out of the caves. Now we need more darkness. When New York again had a blackout, in 2003, they welcomed it, they partied with it, like a long forgotten friend. Our need for darkness has recently been elucidated -- on the cover of Time! -- by a preacher who thinks we can find god in the dark. But the secular case for darkness is also strong.

The dark is part of us, it binds us to each other. It would be hard to have all your first kisses in broad daylight. Candle light dinners would be as romantic as birthday cakes. No more ghost stories. No more epic games of sardines. No more easily sneaking out of the house. Darkness comes like a cool blanket. It calms us. It makes wars more difficult. If you don't sleep at night and work at day you get sick. You might even get cancer.

Can't we turn our streetlights off? Say, around midnight? Or what about motion sensors? Many are trying. Think of the stars we would reveal, the carbon we wouldn't burn, and the equilibrium we might regain. "Black will always have something melancholy in it," Edmund Burke wrote. But so will we, right? 

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