Even during the worst of the pandemic in New York City, when the threat of the virus had emptied out the streets, the lights of Times Square stayed on, its many towering advertisements flashing and flickering. The coronavirus had driven millions of people indoors, but the city’s most recognizable plaza was illuminated—a symbol, George Lence, a spokesperson for Times Square’s sign operators, told me, of “New York’s strength and resiliency,” a marker that everything might still be fine. If Times Square—or any other famous monument in a major city—were to go dark, it would send a worrying message.
Outdoor lighting signals security, a bright deterrent against misdeeds that would otherwise flourish under the cover of darkness, and that idea extends to other definitions of security. “We have this idea that light is something positive, and we are in dark times, so we need some light to brighten us up,” says Annette Krop-Benesch, a researcher in Berlin who studies the effects of artificial light on the biological rhythms of humans and animals.
But Times Square was something of an aberration: Everything, of course, was not fine in the United States and beyond.
From a satellite’s perspective, Earth at night, under cloudless conditions, is, in normal times, a navy-blue marble with a dusting of gold. The electric sparks of human activity shimmer in the darkness: a bustling downtown, a well-traveled highway, a fleet of container ships in open water. But when the coronavirus swept across the globe, the glow of civilization shifted from city centers to residential areas. Entire stretches of road, once shiny like strands of tinsel from car headlights, vanished from the nighttime map. As entire populations and industries curtailed their usual movements, pixels of light on satellite images rearranged themselves accordingly—a new bright cluster here, a fresh spot of darkness there.