When Did You Last Look Up at the Stars?

By Tan Yu Kai

May 2022 FEATURE
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On moonless, cloudless nights, Kampung Sungai Burung in Balik Pulau is transformed into otherworldly spaces as the villagers rest in peaceful slumber. The Milky Way is the solar system’s home galaxy. As we are located on the fringe of the galaxy, we can gaze into its plane at the galactic centre some 26,000 light years away. Photo by: C.K. Lim

MAY IS A stifling month in northern Malaysia. After a tempestuous monsoon season, it is a clear night tonight in Penang — something of a rarity. A few dissipating wisps of clouds flirt with the eager stars. Six months under rain clouds and another six under hazy skies in the dry season, Penang is wrought with frustrations for those who enjoy the company of the stars.

Penang lies five degrees north of the equator. From this privileged position, we are at a special vantage point for viewing both the northern and southern skies – the former studded with bright gleaming stars; the latter rich in hallucinatory star clouds and dramatic celestial vistas. Overcast weather aside, Penang’s night skies offer the best of both worlds, providing vistas that stargazers from the global north, where the hobby has gained traction (think North America and Europe), have to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to travel to see. In fact, many astronomers in the northern hemisphere have never seen the unparalleled splendour of the summer southern Milky Way.

Pulau Betong, Gertak Sanggul, Balik Pulau and the Penang National Park are some of the spots on Penang Island spared most from the offence of artificial lighting. While far from immaculate, the sight of the Milky Way from a paddy field, a fishing village, a remote peak, is beyond breath-taking. I remember fondly a night by mangrove swamps in the Island’s south. The tide was coming in; the moon was westering. As the thick crescent dipped below the horizon, the skies darkened and the stars leapt out from the background. The Milky Way gleamed, towering over us. And as the waves crashed against the rocks, they flashed bright powder blue. Bioluminescence and the stars erupted in celebration of that wondrous night that I will never forget.

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Izzat Zubir, an amateur astronomer with 15 years of experience behind his eyepiece, is born-and-raised in Balik Pulau. On clear nights, he is often spotted “busking” in the parking lot of local mosques with his telescope, arousing the curiosity of anyone retiring from evening prayers who wish to peek through the eyepiece.

“Most people who stop by have seen inspiring pictures of the sky, but have never touched a telescope; have questions about blackholes and aliens, but know no one to pose these questions to. I want my community engagement sessions to provoke interest and questions, and so I focus on relatable objects such as Saturn, Jupiter, the Moon. A major draw is that our skies are still dark enough for people to photograph the Orion Nebula on their smartphones – it was the first object I imaged on my first smartphone!”

Clarifying local misconceptions on mosques as exclusionary spaces, Izzat stresses that all are welcome at star parties held at these places of worship, which are generally welcoming spaces to respectful folks regardless of religious affiliation.

Izzat’s star parties are well-attended, and he spends as much time operating the telescope as he does fielding questions from the inquisitive crowds, including science teachers who have few other resources to learn about astronomy. Photo by: Izzat Zubir.

As social attitudes on the pandemic change, we can also look forward to public star parties organised by the Astronomy Society of Penang and the Penang Ninth Observatory (PIXO) at Tech Dome Penang.

“Your first time seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope will not be the same as the colourful photos from NASA or ESA. It’s typically smaller than you’d expect, but the details you pick out – the division in the ring, the storm clouds, the shadow of the ring on the planet – will change your life. That is the feeling I want to share with people.”

Izzat’s excitement is palpable when he speaks of his passion in public education. However, despite increased vigour in outreach programmes, the onslaught on the integrity of our night skies mean that we are all losing our right to look up in wonder.

We have over the generations become used to brighter ambience as “normal”; we have become less adept at seeing dimmer things. The rapid colonisation by LED lighting is exacerbating light pollution, wiping out the stars from our night sky, and wiping out our collective memory of their marvellous existence. As we replace old high-wattage fluorescent light fixtures for low-wattage LED alternatives, we economise on electricity usage but now use new lights with generally higher light output. As we gain brighter nights and lower electricity bills, we lose our proximity and affinity to the celestial realm. Far too often, urban-dwelling Penangites scorn the “backward” and “dangerous darkness” of Teluk Bahang, Balik Pulau and Pulau Betong, never once looking up at the magic the local residents see above after nightfall.

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“In my home in Air Putih, the skies are still quite dark. However, with the new KFC, Starbucks and other rapid developments in Balik Pulau, a lot of the sites I used to stargaze at a few years back are now lost. To see the darker celestial objects, I now need to go further south to truly kampung areas with very little light at night and no buildings to block the skies,” Izzat says.

From a more down-to-earth perspective, excess light affects our wellbeing and health, and perhaps less often discussed, disrupts nocturnal activities of wildlife, including moon-cued homing behaviour, spawning cycles, bioluminescent signalling, etc. Izzat further explains that development is a double-edged sword, with consequences that ripple beyond the immediate site being developed.

A side-by-side comparison of one of the brightest nebulae in the night sky as seen by the million-dollar Hubble Space Telescope in orbit and a hundred-dollar smartphone from Balik Pulau. The personal experience of taking a blurry photo of a cloud of gas and dust 1,840 light years away makes one tremble in thrill in ways that a professional photo on a screen cannot. On a clear night, this nebula can even be seen with the unaided eye from the suburbs of George Town. Photo by: Izzat Zubir and the Hubble Space Telescope.

“I enjoy being able to see and buy interesting things near my home with the developments in Balik Pulau, but the night sky is very close to being lost. And looking to the east in the direction of George Town, essentially everything except the moon is obscured by the city’s glare. There are simple ways to develop while preserving our dark skies that we should consider – we can use hooded downward-pointing streetlights with a narrow wavelength, following the examples of major observatories such as Mauna Kea in Hawai’i,” Izzat proposes.

In the ever-busy, ever-building, ever-throwing-out-the-old-for-the-new world, we barely stop to think about what we are busily throwing away while we build new things. For many stargazers, “development” is a dirty word. Development is not just a one-way street to gaining more things, but also a history of things lost and sacrificed.

The majesty of the night sky has been lost to most denizens of the planet, but not many actually mourn the sight that once inspired fear, awe, the big questions and the pursuit of knowledge in our ancestors.

Tan Yu Kai

is a Penangite biologist-cum-artist passionate about human relationalities with the natural world. He is a triple major in Biology, Earth & Environmental Sciences and Anthropology, and was a Research Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.