The Romance of Filament and Photons
“Follow the lights that line the streets, connecting telephones, follow the lights from house to house, and they will lead you home,” I sang in a shy, hushed tone as I propped myself up against the ledge of the thirty-something-story rooftop sitting, staring at the city lights around me. I watched a single light go out and let my thoughts wander to who had turned it off. I know it made no difference to the rest of the lights but for some reason it also made all of the difference.
And these were the things he and I would talk about sitting on the hard concrete with a bottle of red wine, some smokes, a tub of chocolate peanut-butter Haagen Dazs, and one spoon. It was our favorite thing. As we let the bright city lights send electricity through our hearts we scooted closer to each other and watched as the lights consumed the nighttime sky with a special glow. Everything seemed more alive, more romantic and we owed it all to the technology of artificial lighting.
On the rooftop we were surrounded by the smeared light of the bustling traffic under us and the grid of lights that crawled up each building.
Each light bulb had little electrical currents being forced from one contact to another through the man-made wires and filament. Electrons were plowing through the wires and dancing through the inert gas swirling in the bulbs to help flush away any air and to distribute the new heat. The electrons hammered into the atoms that made the strong filament and each impact made vibrations that heated up the atoms until they started releasing photons. When heated high enough, around 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the light bulbs started admitting light. We were sitting in the midst of a giant circuit board.
The buildings, warm with hammering electrons, stood tall on the board and seemed to be the main source of light. Wire streets flooded with moving light ran between them carrying information and people like us.
“The lights will lead you home, eh? I wonder why we associate light with home,” he said as he poured each of us another glass of wine. Humans are dependent on light. The illumination of the nighttime sky provided a comfort. We thought about sitting on top of a thirty-something-story building without the lights. The thought of not seeing a single light flickering off in the midst of a million somehow meant no one else was there. Feelings of loneliness crept in. And what about the edge of the roof? We had rigged the fire escape to even be there. There were no walls or railing. It was just flat roof continuing to a sharp edges and long falls. Thinking of that, fear crept in as we interlocked thin fingers and I squeezed his boney hand.
It was possible that without the city lights the stars would be visible. But to me stars were somehow a reminder of how insignificant we are and again the darkness penetrated our deepest emotions. The lights were there though and they made us feel we were part of something larger. And in the spotlight of a million light bulbs, our love felt the most important thing.
Everyone knows that love is home.
Home is wherever I’m with you — Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
So we sat, humming and bathing in these vibrations, enjoying the thermal lighting aka the incandescent light bulbs and the quantum lights aka the LED and fluorescent light bulbs. We sat in our ignorance, happy in a gigantic vat of light pollution.
Defined by the International Dark Sky Association as any adverse affect of artificial light including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste or in simpler terms, the introduction by humans, directly or indirectly, of artificial light into the environment, light pollution was a funny thing to smile in the midst of.
We were naive to the stars being obscured and replaced by stars made by the men walking around thirty-something stories below us. These man-made stars were creating sky glow, the specific light pollution we were experiencing.
Skyglow, defined as the brightening of the night sky due to man-made lighting, is why Earth’s biggest cities are visible from space at night and why people have to travel to West Virginia or abandoned parts of Georgia to find beautiful, dark, starry skies. So it happened we were contributing to energy waste, headaches, fatigue, medically defined stress, decrease in sexual function, increase in anxiety, disruption of ecosystems, negative effects on astronomy, and an increase in atmospheric pollution.
The City Dark is a film that takes a close look at the impact of urban light pollution. It points out “There is so much about a city that is a shock to the human immune system” which is humorous considering how addicted we were to the liveliness of it all—and it wasn’t just us. Last year Kanye West and Rihanna put out the song, “All Of The Lights”. The lyric, “all of the lights, cop lights, flash lights, spot lights, strobe lights, street lights, (all of the lights, all of the lights), fast life, drug life, thug life, rock life, every night,” is loaded with and promoting the energy of a city. On the other side of the spectrum, Cheney, the director of The City Dark, interviews people who suggest that the love of city lights isn’t a natural romance. They suggest that we have lost a sense of wonder about the cosmos and a degree of humility when we’re deprived of the night sky. On Cheney’s “search for night on a planet that never sleeps”, he even visits a “dark sky” community in Arizona where residents are united in their love of stargazing, the very thing I seemed to prefer pollution over.
So I would ask about the one light flickering off and why it felt so important. We would dig deep, curious mouths full of ice-cream, to come to the disappointing conclusion that lights were perhaps ordinary. Earlier, when we were buying the Haagen Dazs at the market around the corner, our faces lit up from the glow of the freezer door. Fluorescent lights hung high above our heads and when we stepped out into the dark night, the subtle light of street lamps painted the air around us. Headlights of taxis flew past and we didn’t think anything of it. We didn’t think anything of it because it was normal. Commercial lighting and endless street lamps were part of the mundane bullshit we so longed to avoid by rigging fire escapes and eating ice cream with one spoon. And the same thing we avoided was what we waited for. We waited for the end of the day to come, for work and school to be over, to run out of breath racing and tripping up the stairs to the thirty-something floor. To sink down onto the dirty concrete, exhale, and look at the lights and think about what they meant, who they belonged to, and why they were on (or off). When we were on the roof we thought everything of the lights because on the roof the lights clustered together like hydrangeas under warm sun. They became something larger than the icy light in the freezer door or the taxi’s headlights. Then that one light, being turned off by another life and disappearing into the natural darkness reminded us that they were actually ordinary.
How can something be simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary? How can something artificial feel naturally comforting? Maybe because those nights of pounding hearts and cigarette smoke weren’t filled with thoughts of fighting electrons, light pollution, or the supposed overwhelming nature of everything around us but about the comfort we too had found through light. And this comfort wasn’t from the star painted skies of Arizona but from our own stars, city stars.
Brittany Joyce is an artist and writer currently studying at the Savannah College of Art and Deign
in Atlanta, GA. After stints in Virginia, North Carolina, and New York she's found a home in Atlanta where she writes weekly for the Aviary Organic Beauty Collective.
© Copyright Brittany Joyce 2012