I detest sodium-vapor streetlights, whose yellowish glow now colors the night and stains metropolitan horizons everywhere. When I was growing up in suburban California in the 1960s and ’70s, the world after dark was lit by warm incandescence and whitish mercury-vapor street light. Although the latter had a spectral signature with vampiric overtones, turning reds to black and casting a blood-drained pallor on white skin, it still approximated something akin to plain white light.
But after the energy shocks of the 1970s, high-pressure sodium lights gradually took over the night. Following the economic imperative to use the most cost-effective lighting—high-pressure sodium lights consume half as much energy as mercury-vapor lamps and can last up to 16,000 hours longer—transportation departments and cities embraced sodium light. It was as though someone said “Fiat lux sulfurea—“Let there be light from hell.” The relentless spread of sodium streetlights is documented in NASA night photographs from space: New York City and Los Angeles are circuit boards of glowing orange, and Long Beach, one of the world’s busiest ports, is a flare of tarnished gold. It’s even worse in the United Kingdom, where 85 percent of streetlights use sodium. The jaundiced weirdness of sodium light has become a vexing challenge to photographers (one filmmaker, Tenolian Bell, called it “the ugliest light known to the cinematographer”); movie cameras simulate its color by using a gel filter named Bastard Amber. Significantly, retailers have avoided inflicting the unpleasantness of sodium lights on their customers—most commercial parking lots and shopping malls use the costlier white metal halide lights.