I recently pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to schedule a stargazing experience. I opened an app to find the time of sunset, went to another app to find out the moon phase for that night, and then opened my calendar to schedule the event. Next, I opened my weather app to check the weather forecast to ensure we’d have clear skies. 

 

All at once, it hit me. My smartphone replaced the need for skywatching knowledge and skills for nearly everything in life. Looking to the sky for information was practically obsolete.

 

Skywatching has been a critical skill for basic human survival since our species’ history began. But over time, we invented devices to make those skills more effortless and, in many cases, unnecessary. In some ways, it democratized systems of knowledge. Instead of a few tribal leaders possessing calendar knowledge, everyone could have access to a calendar. Once that happened, humans learned new applications for calendars, and today, we keep our digital calendars jam-packed from morning to night.

 

I may be romanticizing the idea of a tribal elder sitting in his skywatching seat to watch a rising or setting sun, much like some romanticize the “simpler times” of Laura Ingalls Wilder when she lived in the Big Woods or on the Prairie. But I do like to imagine what it would be like to get up before dawn, make my way to my skywatching spot early in the morning, and sit in the quiet so I could carefully watch the first glimmer of sunlight while noting its location on the horizon. I would repeat the activity at the end of the day to watch the setting sun and note its location. 

 

Today, I tap the screen on my phone early in the morning, and everything I need to know is right there. I don’t even have to leave my bed to get that information. If we could bring someone to the future who lived hundreds of years ago, they would be shocked to find that almost no one possesses star knowledge today. Imagine Galileo’s reaction!

 

After realizing that my smartphone had replaced the need for skywatchers, I started thinking of all the different ways we’ve lost our connection to the night sky. Could we learn skywatching skills and still use a watch, a calendar, or a weather app? Of course, we could! But none of these things are taught anymore. Students can easily cruise through high school without understanding how the moon’s phases work, how to find Sagittarius or the North Star, or what it means when the stars twinkle.

 

The loss of knowledge usually means a loss of connection with the night sky. This knowledge has slipped away from global consciousness and resides primarily with career academics and indigenous leaders. 

 

In case you miss my point as you keep reading, my summary at the end of each section is sarcasm. Read my “goodbyes” and “farewells” to the night sky as facetious comments. I intend to comment on the sadness I feel for losing such extraordinary knowledge.

 

TIME OF DAY

An exact time of day was never important to our distant ancestors. Over time, they found ways to estimate how far they were into their day by watching the sun and the shadows. We invented sundials, then water clocks, and soon mechanical clocks. The religious world wanted a way to let their followers know when it was time to pray, so they placed more value on reckoning time. 

 

When the railroads were built across America, knowing the precise time was vital to getting people to their destinations on time. Pocket watches started to show up, and time zones were invented.

 

Time zones started to take us away from reckoning time according to the sun. Noon was the time when the sun was directly overhead. However, the difference between the sun’s position on the eastern edge of a time zone was significantly different from its position over the western edge. Noon no longer referred to when the sun was directly overhead but when our clock or watch said it was Noon.

 

Daylight Savings Time came along and threw us even further away from skywatching. Now, the sun might reach directly overhead at 1:00 in the afternoon or later, depending on your location in your time zone.

 

Today, our timekeeping devices ignore the sun altogether. Instead, they keep time to the oscillations of atoms. We could keep time in a cave without ever seeing the sun. The world’s most accurate clock is the optical lattice clock, which only loses one second every 15 billion years. Accuracy at this level is critical in the digital age, but not so much when deciding if it’s almost lunchtime or when to meet your friend for a hike.

 

Goodbye, sun. We may have relied on you to track the time of day since the beginning of human history, but you’re unnecessary now. So long.

 

TIME OF YEAR

When is the Spring Equinox? It depends on whether or not it’s a leap year, but usually between March 19-21. The Catholic church, which developed our modern calendar, sought to keep Easter as close to the same date as possible every year. But before religion dictated the seasonal dates, there was simple skywatching. 

 

The tribal leaders responsible for skywatching activities noted where the sun rose throughout the year and where it set. They often had something to mark the most significant times of the year, sometimes with petroglyphs. The four times of the year that were most critical were the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Spring and Fall Equinoxes. Their observations took place from the same location every day. It was summer when the sun reached its northernmost spot on the horizon. When it reached its southernmost spot, it was winter, and the place in between was spring and fall. 

 

They also divided the seasons in half, with the midway point referred to as a Cross Quarter Day. Most cultures observed festivals and ceremonies on the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days. Their traditions for each of those days connected them to what was happening in nature at the time of year, such as planting, harvesting, migrating, and other essential facets of life that allowed them to thrive.

 

Ancient calendars started as lunar calendars based on the cycles of the moon, but in most years, twelve moon cycles fell short of an entire solar year. Over time, more and more cultures adopted a solar calendar as their dedicated skywatching skills helped them learn how many days were in a year. The Egyptians used the morning rising of the star Sirius to help them figure out that Earth’s year was 365.25 days in length.

 

Today, most of the world follows the Gregorian calendar that dates to the 1500s. It’s a solar calendar with twelve months of 30 or 31 days, except for February, which has 28 days, unless it’s a leap year in which it has 29 days. Yes, this calendar is complex, but it has worked well enough for all these centuries. Most of us don’t know the science that’s going on behind our calendars. We open Google Calendar and click ahead a few months to see when we can schedule our family vacation. We don’t even base our months on the moon cycles anymore.

 

Our calendar no longer requires anyone to sit outside before dawn and note where the sun appears on the horizon to determine when another month or year has started. Once again, we don’t need the sun to determine what season we’re in or what day it is. Thanks, Google. Goodbye, sun.

 

WEATHER FORECASTING

When I was a kid, I knew two people who were fantastic at pretending to give the weather forecast because they sounded so legit. One was a cousin, and the other was my friend Mike. We always asked them to “do their weatherman voice.” It was awesome. Mike went on to become a meteorologist and does his “weatherman voice” daily for a living.

 

I’ve always been baffled by the way weather could be predicted so far in advance. The Old Farmer’s Almanac still gives a generalized annual weather forecast based on El Niño and La Niña patterns and other metrics.

 

I recently read the book The First Astronomers: How Indigenous Elders Read the Stars by Duane Hamacher. He explains how the elders could forecast the weather by looking at the stars. Were the stars still and shining bright? Or were they flickering hard, indicating that bad weather and wind were coming in a few days? Which way was the crescent moon tilted? What did the Pleiades look like as it rose just before sunrise? 

 

I don’t know the first thing about using the stars to predict the weather, and I’ll bet you don’t, either. Why should we need to when we can pull the weather forecast out of our pocket and read it on a screen? 

 

Sorry, stars. You’re not needed for weather forecasting anymore. Our computer models will serve just fine, thank you.

 

AGRICULTURAL PLANNING

Knowing when to plant or harvest crops has always been vital for survival and still is today. Before modern technology, farmers kept a calendar of the seasons and watched for certain stars or constellations to rise during the proper time of year to know when to plant corn, wheat, or other crops. They couldn’t just rely on the warmer weather because a freezing snap could follow that would kill their tender seedlings. They had to know precisely when to plant. 

 

They often made petroglyphs to help them track the seasons, and star stories were invented to help them remember what to look for in the night sky to know the exact week to put the seed in the ground or to harvest the crops. We often think of mythology today as being a fictional story. The star stories were so much more than fictional stories. They contained the critical information needed for survival. The stories helped them remember and accurately pass along the information.

 

Today’s backyard gardeners look to their local Extension Office to know when to plant where they live. Commercial farmers belong to organizations that share information, too. And each microclimate has tweaks that shift the dates by a few days or more. 

 

Sun, moon, and stars, you served us well for thousands of years. Still, our modern technology and information banks are far superior, so we’ve forgotten all about you in contemporary agriculture. Sorry, but we’ve moved on.

 

NAVIGATION

We were all taught that Polaris, the North Star, was vital for navigation at night. But what if you lived in the Southern Hemisphere, where you could never see the North Star? What if you lived 5,000 years ago, and Thubin was the North Star instead of Polaris? 

 

The stars have always been used for navigation at night, and no culture impresses me more with their navigational abilities than the Polynesians. They could easily navigate across the massive Pacific Ocean and find tiny islands. They were intimately in tune with the position of every constellation and significant star in the night sky. They knew exactly how the Milky Way tumbled across the sky and how it could assist with direction. They had remarkable mental maps of the ocean by using the stars overhead. Have you seen Disney’s Moana? It brings the world of navigation on the Pacific to life in a beautiful way.

 

Today, we have mapping satellites zipping around our planet more than 400 miles above the Earth and Google cars driving up and down streets to gather mapping information and images. People rarely get lost anymore. You can drive from your home to a completely unfamiliar place 800 miles away and not once end up in the wrong place, with some exceptions, of course. 

 

Studies show that the more we use smartphone navigation to find our way around, especially in our own cities, the weaker our brains get at natural navigation. There’s a place in our brain that’s associated with spatial navigation.

 

Paper maps and atlases are unused these days, as are nature-based navigational skills. We don’t need to have a star map in our heads to get anywhere. You don’t have to recognize a single constellation in the sky or have any idea how to find the North Star. Pull your Google Map out of your pocket, and you’re on your way. Sorry, stars. You look pretty but serve no purpose beyond a lovely night of casual stargazing.

 

RHYTHMS OF NATURE

My friends who like to hunt and fish can tell me when it’s salmon season, deer or elk season, and some can even tell me when it’s bear-hunting season. Most of them get this information from their state’s Game & Fish Department. Or they might get it from the place that sells their hunting and fishing licenses.

 

Long before these organizations existed, the stars held this information. In the book I already mentioned, The First Astronomers, Duane Hamacher tells how certain stars or constellations would appear on the horizon, letting the locals know that a particular animal was about to reproduce, migrate, or be available for hunting to provide food for their people. They also used other cues from nature around them, but the stars were an essential part of the knowledge needed. 

 

But it’s more convenient to look at the Game & Fish Department’s website to get dates so hunters can plan far ahead for their hunting trips. Sorry, stars, but our new way is faster. We don’t need your help for this one. 

 

IDENTIFYING CELESTIAL OBJECTS

Growing up in Northern Idaho, I always saw the Milky Way and thought everyone, everywhere, could also see it. And then, I moved to Phoenix, where the sky never really got dark at night. Only then did I realize how much I’d taken the starry nights for granted because I only knew how to find one thing: the Big Dipper. The night sky wasn’t a valued part of the curriculum when there was no need to use the stars for timekeeping, navigation, food production, or anything else concerning my survival. I didn’t know any of the constellations, I couldn’t identify a planet, and I didn’t realize there were nebulae, star clusters, or even other galaxies visible to the naked eye. I didn’t even know how the phases of the moon worked.

 

I’m not alone. Many of the people who participate in my stargazing experiences also know nothing. Most don’t know when Orion is straight above them on the clearest night. Naked-eye astronomy isn’t taught in school anymore at any grade level. Kids will learn about the solar system and how much they would weigh on Venus but don’t know how to find the constellations for themselves. 

 

And why should they bother when they have a stargazing app in their pocket? Just point your phone at anything that looks interesting, and you can instantly find out what it is without ever having to remember it or learn where it is in relation to other constellations or even what time of year to look for it. Most people have never used a planisphere or even heard of it because the smartphone does even more than that boring star wheel anyway. 

 

You know I’ve been sarcastic in saying adios to skywatching throughout this article, but I do want to emphasize that I highly recommend downloading a free stargazing app. It’s a great way to learn the night sky and foster curiosity. It might even entice people to stay outside under the stars longer than they might have otherwise. 

 

AMPLIFYING THE LOSS

Do we need to have a front-of-mind knowledge about any of these things? No. We can survive just fine by relying on our smartphones, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. We’re all busy people. The world has changed, and we only have so much time to learn how to live in modern society and contribute to humanity’s well-being and improvement. Most people will only pursue this knowledge as an academic or hobbyist. 

 

It’s not the loss of knowledge that saddens me so much as it’s the loss of our connection with the night sky. We stay inside at night, we fill our eyes, minds, and imaginations with bright digital entertainment while the outside world grows dark and quiet. We can’t name the constellations, we can’t identify a planet, and we can’t see the Milky Way anymore.

 

That brings me to one of the saddest parts of all. Our loss of connection goes beyond our reliance on a smartphone. The disconnection can also be blamed on the erasure of most of the night sky. Over ninety percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way from where they live. Many have never seen the Milky Way in their whole life. Light pollution from careless lighting practices has washed away our view of the stars, making us forget what was up there and diminishing our ability to feel awe when we look up at the sky at night.

 

RECONNECTING

You don’t have to have a skywatching seat where you track every sunrise and sunset to reconnect with the night sky. Start with these simple ideas.

  • Spend some time under the stars once a month. The night sky shifts month-by-month, season-by-season. There’s always something new to see.
  • Download a free stargazing app and learn some constellations’ names.
  • Go on a Full Moon walk or a stargazing hike. If you’re in the Phoenix area, I lead these activities regularly. CLICK HERE to see my Event Calendar.
  • Attend a Star Party. Find your local astronomy club and ask for information about local star parties.
  • Attend a Dark Sky Festival. Some International Dark Sky Communities host annual festivals, and many certified Dark Sky National Parks host festivals.
  • Host your own star party. Buy a laser pointer (search for “tactical green laser pointer” online, and practice laser etiquette when using it) and use our stargazing app to help your friends and family find cool stuff in the night sky.
  • Plan a trip away from the city to see the Milky Way.
  • Visit a planetarium or observatory near you.
  • Listen to the Night Sky Tourist podcast for inspiration and monthly guided tours across the night sky.
  • Subscribe to Night Sky Tourist (see Home Page), and you’ll receive a free download of my annual Stargazing Guide.