Damien McNamara’s interest in astronomy has taken a turn he ‘‘never, ever expected’’.
Mr McNamara inherited a passion for astronomy from his late father, Danny, and for many years he campaigned for darker skies for astronomical purposes.
But more recently, the Oamaru astronomer has been spurred on by a bigger impact of light pollution — his son Reuben’s health and wellbeing.
After realising there was a link between blue light emissions and melatonin suppression — and new LED street lights outside his son’s bedroom window were affecting his behaviour — Mr McNamara has been a dedicated outdoor lighting advocate.
He recently received national recognition for his work, awarded the Murray Geddes Memorial Prize by the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand (RASNZ) for his contribution to astronomy in New Zealand.
Mr McNamara had no idea he was nominated for the award. He received a phone call about three weeks before RASNZ’s annual conference informing him he had won. Uncertainty around Covid-19 alert level changes meant he could not make it to the conference, but he was able to address attendees via Zoom, talking about his work and interest in astronomy and light pollution.
Earlier this month, RASNZ president Steve Butler visited Oamaru to present Mr McNamara with his award. The official presentation took place under the Oamaru street light outside his son’s old bedroom window — where it all began for Mr McNamara.
Mr McNamara’s son, Reuben (14), has autism, and his family noticed a change in his behaviour after Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency installed new LED streetlights 12m away from his bedroom window.
That was when Mr McNamara started researching the effects of blue light, and discovered people with autism were hypersensitive to light, meaning the effects of blue light were worse for Rueben.
Within three weeks of Mr McNamara making the connection, Rueben moved house and showed a marked improvement.
Mr McNamara, who works as a field technician for SouthRoads, shared Reuben’s story at the New Zealand Starlight Conference in Tekapo in 2019, and it was well received by experts in the audience.
‘‘For two and a-half days, I sat at the starlight conference as a road worker, just listening to other people. Then all of a sudden, all of these professors and doctors wanted to talk to me — it was super weird,’’ he said.
‘‘Our story has become the first documented case of harm from light pollution, outside a controlled environment.’’
To expand the reach of his research, Mr McNamara wrote and self-published a book about his story, and he has gone on to investigate the impacts of light on flowers, plants, and wildlife for book number two.
He has been working with the Waitaki District Council on its new outdoor lighting policy in the district plan, and has been lobbying central government around the impact of artificial light on wildlife at night. He also established New Zealand’s first permanent Globe atNight — Sky Brightness Monitoring Network station, which provides global data to the international light pollution programme.
Mr McNamara’s work had also led him to reconnect with his Maori whakapapa, and investigate the connection between Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) and Ranginui (the Sky Father), and he was looking at studying towards a diploma in health science.
‘‘It’s taken me on a whole different path than what I thought it would take me down originally,’’ he said.