Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wishing Bad Luck on People From Afar

Sometimes when I'm out for a jog, I'll look up at the sky and find Orion's belt, and then look to his shoulder where the sullen red star Betelgeuse hangs waiting to explode. Despite being younger than our sun, Betelgeuse is old and near death. This is because high-mass stars have much shorter lives than little dwarves like the one that lights our Earthly days.

Once it exhausts the fuel in its core, Betelgeuse will go supernova, becoming brighter than the full moon for several weeks and easily visible during the day.

It's been my habit, since I learned of this, to occasionally cross my fingers that Betelgeuse lights up at the close end of astronomers' estimates (any day now) rather than the far one (a million years in the future). But earlier this week, while glancing over my shoulder at the faintly scarlet star, it occurred to me how selfish this wish was.

Since Betelgeuse is only about ten million years old, it hasn't had time to develop any advanced life on whatever planets might orbit it. And it's too far away to pose any danger to Earth. So at a glance, its death seems to be a guaranteed spectacle for us and no threat to anyone.

But there could be dozens or hundreds (or even thousands) of other solar systems within lethal range of the radiation Betelgeuse will emit when it explodes, and as a result, I can't be certain that in wishing for its death, I'm not also wishing for the deaths of billions or trillions of living people on planets we will never know of.

That's rather a high price for me to receive a pretty light show.

So from now on, when out for my jog, I intend to look up at that bright star, red and gleaming, and hope that it does not enliven the night anytime soon. Or that if it does, any civilizations within its danger zone have found a means to protect themselves from its nuclear fury.

In the meantime, I can be pleased to know that its brightness and crimson hue tell me about a star so large it would reach almost to Jupiter if placed where our own sun sits. A titan living fast and enormously, blasting out energy on a scale ordinary mortals cannot imagine.

That's a beautiful sight too, and does no one any harm.


  1. I would like to make a counter point. All of the atoms that make up life (as I know it) were created inside of stars like Betelgeuse and spread through out the universe after their destruction. So perhaps hoping for the 'death' of Betelgeuse will create more life in the far future than it will destroy in the 'near' future.

  2. Well, yes, and knocking you over the head for your wallet could give some fellow just the extra cash he needs to get into the pants of a random girl at a club and father a set of triplets, who might then go on to become supermodel geneticists and eventually cure cancer. Still, I'm not going to wish for you to get conked on the skull today in hopes of seeing a trio of comely geniuses win the Nobel Prize 30 years from now.

    Although the more I think about it...

    : )

  3. You know, I once studied astronomy! I took a course! It is the most fascinating this to study! Well, there are many fascinating things to study, astronomy most definitely being one of them!

  4. I love astronomy. It constantly amazes me the things we're able to know about objects and places so vastly far away.