Cosmic conundrum for Celtic computing

The BBC has a nice story for anyone who hopes that IT can bring economic benefits to disparate communities. Which it should, given that you can do anything online from anywhere on the planet - forcing people to huddle together is a relic of the industrial revolution.

The BBC has a nice story for anyone who hopes that IT can bring economic benefits to disparate communities. Which it should, given that you can do anything online from anywhere on the planet - forcing people to huddle together is a relic of the industrial revolution.

The story, that Dumfries and Galloway council has given permission for "one of the biggest data centres in the world" to be built in south-west Scotland, is on the face of it all good news. There's not very much there at the moment - it's one of the UK's least populated areas - and if you're going to gobble electricity then you might as well do so in Scotland where the potential for non-carbon generation from hydroelectric, wind and wave power is top notich. And with sympathetic design and careful production, a data centre can be made to fit in wonderfully with landscape and environment.

But there are things you can't escape - extra infrastructure such as roads, car parks, shops and all the bits to keep humans mobile, warm, fed and happy. These need to be lit at night - and there's a lot of night in Scotland.

And that has implications. For Galloway has just become home to a Dark Sky Park, one of the very few in the world - places where light pollution is so low, the sky at night is displayed in its unblemished splendour. (I must admit to a personal bias here - I spent a few nights earlier this year at the Galloway Astronomy Centre, home of the biggest publicly accessible telescope in Scotland, and saw things you people would not believe. Seriously. How about a constellation of spy satellites, wider than the full moon, moving in perfect formation from horizon to horizon in a couple of minutes? Or a globular cluster of thousands of stars, filling the field of view like so much spilled salt?)

It's not as bad as it might be - the Dark Sky Park is quite far from the site of the new data centre, and a plan to build 750 houses was junked. But light pollution is visible over a very wide area: it's not just that the park is dark, it's that the areas around are dark, too.

So, one hopes very much that the approval for the new centre includes provision for proper assessment of the light pollution and, if necessary, a requirement to minimise it. For it is perfectly possible to design low-impact public lighting without imposing Blitz-level blackouts: it's just that, until recently, nobody ever thought they should. Lighting can be effective and economic and not spill half its photons into the sky where they do no good and lots of harm.