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Light Research @ MMU

Queueing for the dark

Posted by Katharina Gabriel

Institut für Public Health und Pflegeforschung, Universität Bremen, katharina.gabriel@uni-bremen.de

In this day and age there are hardly any places in our neighbourhood unaffected by artificial light at night. Whenever in need we turn light on as a matter of course. Darkness has become rare in our everyday life but as we don’t miss it we don’t realize.

Within the interdisciplinary research project “Verlust der Nacht” (“Loss of the Night” – www.verlustdernacht.de), we investigated the reasons for brightening the night by artificial light, as well as its consequences for animals and humans. As a project coordinator, one of my tasks was to raise people’s awareness about light pollution.Logo_VdN_neg

For the project’s open day we developed a ‘Room of Darkness’ to solicit experiences of senses other than vision for visitors. We prepared boxes for touching and boxes for smelling. Those for touching provided material of different textures such as pebbles, balloons, the bark of a horse chestnut tree, screw nuts and flakes of polystyrene. Those for smelling provided scents of coffee, lemon, basil and nutmeg. We excluded anything wet, ugly or potentially allergenic. We eliminated all sources of light with the exception of one single faint light source for security – enough for scotopic vision. After two of us had adapted our eyes to the gloom, groups of 10 to 15 people: – families, friends, couples – entered. After finding a place within the room, the door was closed and they were welcomed with a short speech about humans being day active creatures whose strongest sense for orientation is vision. In the absence of light we feel unsure and thus tend to brighten the night. However, we have other senses that can be deployed for orientation, such as hearing. Instinctively, visitors followed the speaker’s voice with their head, and sharing this observation surprised them! We then invited them to test their other senses.

In the boxes for smelling, coffee was obvious; even little children identified the right box when asked to point it out. Nutmeg and basil, however, could conjure up associated foods. Instead of ‘basil’, visitors referred to ‘tomato and mozzarella’, and instead of ‘nutmeg’, they identified ‘mashed potatoes’ – both dishes commonly flavoured with these herbs and spices! In the boxes for touching, the first challenge was to overcome the timidity that restrained people from plunging their hands inside. Most of the contents were easy to distinguish. For the screw nuts we accepted ‘pearls’ as correct answer from children, though men often answered “M8” – the correct name of the item in terms of the size of diameter, testifying to the habitual, sensual knowledge of the handyman!L

After a while the children started to run around – their eyes able to adapt more quickly to the darkness than those of the adults. However, most visitors’ eyesight adapted towards the end of the session (after 10 to 12 minutes). Occasionally, we were asked, whether we had switched on some light. Only seniors lacked the ability to visually adapt. Conversation arose about eye physiology with its rods and cones, resulting in photopic and scotopic vision. Sometimes blindness and the natural options for orientation were discussed as well as options in the built environment.

We offered the ‘Room of Darkness’ over three years and it was always well attended. I learned that in peak times people had waited in line for two rounds – to experience of darkness again they had queued for more than half an hour…

 

November 12th, 2014 - 12:49pm

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