Impairing Astronomers’ Work Cited As Argument Against Digital Billboards In Silicon Valley

March 23, 2022 by Dave Haynes

The bright lights of digital billboards have always generated some public opposition, particularly if a big roadside display’s visuals spill at night into the living and sleeping spaces of nearby residences. Now there’s a new argument against such displays – the light pollution problem they might create for astronomical studies.

A pair of students in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism have shot and released a short video looking at the light pollution in Silicon Valley and what that means for work being done by the Lick Observatory, which sits on a mountaintop on the range east of San Jose.

The argument is that these beacons of bright light are unnecessary and affect the ability for scientists to study the night skies.

The UC Berkeley video is a bit over the top – using scary Wagnerian end-of-days music to accompany photos of billboards. It also interviews a person with a citizen advocacy group opposing the repeal of a decades-old ban on billboards in the city, as well as a resident astronomer at the observatory.

Stressing that my astronomical chops are non-existent, it still does seem a bit of a reach to cite an observatory as the argument against digital billboards. Its location traces back more than a century, when it was truly out in the middle of nowhere. The Bay Area has steadily expanded – particularly as San Jose became a tech mecca – and added millions of new light sources, from streetlights to residential and office lighting.

I could be entirely wrong, but logic suggests the existence or absence of boards would make little or no difference to how the night skies look for the scientists at that observatory. It was built when San Jose was a town of maybe 20,000. Now it’s two million.

The direct impacts on local residents and businesses is likely a stronger argument, and at least some display manufacturers design-in things like louvres on the displays that minimize what they call light trespass … so motorists see boards but the light doesn’t spill into nearby neighbourhoods.

Here’s the video

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