Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Wish Upon A Star

The recent announcement that, Betelgeuse, one of the ten brightest stars in the sky, might become a supernova in 2012 created a lot of internet buzz. The sensational, tabloid version of the story indicated that Betelgeuse would become a “second sun”, erasing the difference between night and day on Earth, leading to all manner of disruptions and possible apocalyptic doom.

Fortunately, this is not the case. While the fact that the red giant star is losing its mass does mean that it will eventually go supernova, exactly when this event will occur could be anytime in the next million years. Still a blink of the eye in galactic terms, but hardly something to concern you and me, temporary fixtures as we are here.

Even if Betelgeuse does go supernova next year, it is unlikely to become a “second sun”. Not that the event wouldn’t be noticeable to the human eye. It would. But the luminosity of the explosion would be something on the order of the brightness of a crescent moon rather than a second sun.

The effect should last for several months when it finally occurs.

Still, a supernova in our galactic neighborhood, so to speak, is interesting food for thought. Astronomers find dozens of supernova in the skies every year but we have never seen one as close as Betelgeuse (a mere 640 light-years away or so). The sudden brightness would obviously be pronounced even if it resembled a crescent moon.

So, I found myself wondering as I have gone out into the clear winter night sky a couple of times recently what the effect of such an occurrence might have upon humanity, who, as a majority, live under the mistaken assumption that the stars are rather fixed and unchanging.

Doubtlessly, it would cause many to marvel and heighten awareness of our tiny place in cosmic space. Many more would interpret it as some sort of “sign” for good or ill. Perhaps, mostly for ill. Certainly, many simpleton fundamentalists would see this as a proclamation from their God. Perhaps, the equivalent of Gabriel blowing his trumpet.


I could see places of worship more crowded with people looking for answers. The night is the place for darkness after all except for the silvery shadows of perhaps a full moon; not the nightly flickering of a suddenly brightened star. This has some precedence. Humanity has probably witnessed supernovae in the past and those likely inspired various religious explanations.

Personally, I would like to entertain the naive hope that such an event might bring the world together a bit more. Our differences as a species are great but that is also a matter of perspective. What makes humanity so contentious is not as awe-inspiring as the vast powers of exploding stars.

We should all appreciate the wonders of the night sky. I can think of nothing that is more unifying than the sun that shines on us all, the air we all breathe, and the stars that shine on every human being every night. We are not so different, we stargazers and sun worshippers. Our differences arise from instinctual, competitive behavior; probably learned traits from our days of surviving as tribes.

From space there are no tribes. There is only what Carl Sagan so aptly termed our “pale blue dot”. Everything we are, everything we can hope to Be, is confined to this tiny bit of blue, watery dust in the cosmos. If we could see how small this place is that we call Earth, perhaps we could see how much greater our dependence upon our own human diversity is compared with the magnitude of our differences which we so readily and unquestioningly assume.

We appear to ourselves as clustering tribes of seething otherness without ever considering the fact that it is by the very abundance of our diversity that we have ever survived as a species at all. So, we have much to learn. And something like a nearby supernova might just be the ticket to point this out.

Unfortunately, we can’t all go out into space and view our pale blue dot from vast distances. I’m sure such an experience would have a profound effect on our Being. But, perhaps, Betelgeuse going supernova might be just as instructive. Perhaps, if the night sky suddenly became lit with a great shimmering glow for a period of many months it might awake more curiosity and respect than fear and dread in us. Perhaps we have evolved to the point where a sudden galactic light might shine deeper in us than any political, social, or religious movement; and bring unity where before there was nothing more than a clambering sea of competitive diversity.

It is wishful thinking, of course. My faith in humanity as a whole is, in fact, rather tainted and limited. But, Betelgeuse just might change all that in a way Carl Sagan could not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice. Really. Thanks.