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Light Research @ MMU

Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society

urban lighting, light pollution and societyA recently published book, Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society, has been edited by Josiane Meier, Ute Hasenöhrl, Katharina Krause and Merle Pottharst. All four were members of the interdisciplinary Loss of the Night research collaboration, and are based at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the Technical University of Berlin and at the Leibniz-Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning in Erkner. This fabulous volume focuses upon urban lighting and light pollution from a social sciences and humanities perspective. It highlights current debates, among them ways in which light pollution might be defined and may be alleviated by emergent technologies and policies. Highly recommended.

January 16th, 2015 - 16:37pm

Queueing for the dark

Posted by Katharina Gabriel

Institut für Public Health und Pflegeforschung, Universität Bremen,

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” –, 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

Light Discipline: Bodies and Power on the Battlefield

I recently presented a paper at the Sensing War conference in London entitled ‘The Meaning of Light: Seeing and Being on the Battlefield’.  Based around a poem I wrote about my time as a soldier during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the paper attempts to articulate the ambiguous power of light which I experienced on my particular part of the battlefield. The poem is called Light Discipline, which is a military term for one of the precautionary procedures deployed and enforced during the hours of darkness to conceal the location of personnel and equipment, and includes a strict ban on all recreational, functional and operational use of light – for example torchlight and cigarette smoking. These tactical blackouts not only made the already arduous but imperative task of staying safe, sane and keeping your body functioning infinitely more difficult, but also served to foreground and confuse other senses, sensibilities, emotions and relationships. Without light, the vast geographies of the desert suddenly shrink, fingertips mean more than maps, or as Derek Gregory might put it, the ‘cartographic’ becomes the ‘corpographic’.

On the other end of the scale, these nightly periods of enforced blindness were ‘relieved’ by the often spectacular artillery barrages to which the city of Basra was subjected during the initial ‘Shock and Awe’ stage of the invasion. As well as high explosives, the artillery unit to which I was attached also fired illumination rounds, known as ‘lumes’, a kind of giant firework on a parachute which hung in the air above the city and usually signalled an imminent attack. Having been caught one night in the beam of an illuminating round myself, I was always struck by their affective power, and how they seemed to make the ensuing high explosive ‘bomblet’ rounds almost unnecessary,  the objective of spatial control and psychological damage having already been achieved with aggressive illumination. Operation Maritime Raider 09

My poem covers the power of light as a potentially biopolitical and affective tactic, and as a disciplinary tool on a far more personal level:





In a blackout we adjust our sights

by touch and cup our smoke against

the desert : waiting for the light.

At long last the barrel scrapes

into place and the night is instantly

exposed. I cover my ears and watch.

In the distance a fitful city crouches,

seared eyes raised to the floating                                                                                                                     

arc above:  waiting for the strike.

              (Light Discipline : 2013)

 The research I have done so far has led to many other fascinating debates, from the authority of vision / knowledge, ‘flesh’ versus ‘eye’ witnessing, to battlefield technologies and the agency of the war poet. Any questions, comments, ideas or contributions would be very welcome. The abstract for the conference paper is available here. By Pip Thornton. (Pip is a PhD student in Geopolitics & Cybersecurity at Royal Holloway. Her research interests are in representations, perceptions and constructions of the figure of the soldier in geopolitical and cyberspaces. A former police officer and reservist soldier, she is also Poetry Editor for The Next Review magazine.  She can be contacted at or @Pip_T )

June 11th, 2014 - 02:07am

Subluminal at John Rylands Library, Manchester

On Deansgate, a main artery of Manchester, lies John Rylands Library, an extraordinary, charismatic Victorian neo-Gothic building that testifies to the power and confidence of the city’s entrepreneurs during its industrial zenith. On the nights of 30th and 31st of January and 1st February, the library was the site for Subluminal, a event devised by a group of design professionals from North West England. Their aim: to transform the usual sensory apprehension of the building. blue ceiling

Visitors were invited to enter the usually unused main door, and make their way through the library’s interior, where a plethora of light effects highlighted sensational architectural features, design details, sculptures, artefacts, stairways, niches, chambers and passageways.  Initially, we lingered in the cavernous reading room, where coloured and white lights highlighted key features, punctuating the general gloom. Then, thrillingly, we descended a very narrow spiral staircase into the bowels of the building. Walking through a dark corridor lined with leather bound books, usually inaccessible to the public,  a strobe light  briefly illuminated the surroundings.

door with bars

Further along, chambers bordered by doors with iron bars were illuminated by a soulful red light, compounding the thick atmosphere. The tour was accompanied by evocative sounds, including a welcoming introduction from the statue of industrialist John Rylands himself, ambient drones and whispers, and throbbing bass notes that spread through the subterranean passageways. At points, the gloom inside contrasted with the light from outside that shone through the ornamental windows. In wholly defamiliarising and enchanting the library through the deployment of sounds, illumination and especially darkness, Subluminal made a powerful statement about the potency of light and sonic design to enrich the sensory experience of place. For more details and selection of images, see

figures sculpture trio



February 4th, 2014 - 15:39pm

Light theme at the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham

I have recently commenced a 3 month fellowship at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study. Each year, the institute selects a particular theme, and this year, the theme is LIGHT. 9 scholars each term, from a wide disciplinary background, are invited to explore, discuss and think about light in the beautiful environment of the 18th century Cosin’s Hall (for a list of this year’s fellows see There are a wide variety of events being held to investigate the numerous ways in which light can be investigated: here’s the full list:

January 20th, 2014 - 15:40pm