Instead of writing about Halloween, I’ll share a seasonally-appropriate story and talk about science, death being human:
- Waiting on a Dead World
- Inspiration and Stellar Evolution
- “Vastness” and Questions
- Embracing Truth
- Life, Death and Dante’s Wood of the Suicides
- Art and Being Able to Smell Roses
And now, let me tell you a tale from a world whose inhabitants aren’t dead — but aren’t alive, either.
They grew in the light of a golden sun. They studied the soil, stones and waters around them. They studied the stars and fire. They studied their world’s myriad forms of life. And they recorded what they had learned.
They lived, engendered more of their kind, watched their young grow and learn, and they died. But their sun continued to shine, and their young grew old, studied, and added to their store of knowledge.
Stars do not grow old, as living things do: but stars change.
As their store of knowledge increased, they came to know that in time their star’s inner fires would fail, choked in ash which had accumulated over ages beyond imagining.
Armed with that knowledge, they could prepare.
Some decided to accept the end of their world as their own end, and the end of all who would come after them, accepting what was to come.
Others built tiny worlds, moving them as the once-golden sun grew, consuming its inner worlds and scorching their home. They lived, grew, engendered and died: and learned.
In time some of them grew restless. They turned their eyes to the stars; left the shrunken, glaring ember that had been their sun behind; and sought other suns.
A few would not die with their world, and would not leave. They had learned, long ago, how to record their memories, habits and desires in forms which could endure boiling oceans and the hot wind which swept air from their home.
And so, as their star billowed out, puffing its substance into the void, they left copies of their minds: buried under miles of rock. Not as inert patterns of memory and habit: but active as their living forms had been. For in this way they thought that some part of themselves, at least, would endure.
And endure they did: as their sun burned the last of its fuel and shrank to a white-hot spot in the sky of their now-airless world.
At last they ventured up, in mechanical bodies well-suited to the vacuum and cold.
Standing on a dead world, their sun a point of light which would have pained living eyes, they discovered that near-immortality was not quite as satisfactory as they had imagined.
Their artificial bodies were adequate, but did not provide the quality of sensation which they remembered.
Some learned to be content with their new form.
Others decided that they wanted to taste, to smell, to touch as they once had. They wanted to live as creatures of flesh and blood again.
It was not a futile desire. The methods they had used to inhabit mechanical bodies could also be used to impose their will on organic creatures, and draw sensations from the living hosts.
There was nothing living on their world. But, they reasoned, just as some of their own kind had traveled the void between stars, others might come to their world.
So they built a huge pattern of concentric rings, surrounded by a pulsing radiance which could have no natural source.
And they waited.
After a very long time, a moving point of light appeared in their sky. It drifted down, until even living eyes could have recognized a mass of cylinders and spheres: a vessel built to carry living beings from world to world.
The vessel landed, opened, and living creatures stepped out. And were met by the waiting minds.
It was worth the wait.
copyright © Brian H. Gill 2009 (revised/corrected October 21, 2020)
I wrote “Waiting on a Dead World” after reading an article about white dwarfs:
- “Dead Stars Once Hosted Solar Systems”
Space.com (April 20, 2009)
Observations from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope suggested that asteroids and terrestrial planets might orbit at least one in every 100 white dwarf stars.
That could mean that before they became white dwarfs, they had planetary systems like ours.
Make that “had a planetary system.”
We’ve yet to find a star and planetary system that’s just like ours.
Some of the 4,000-plus exoplanets we’ve found bear a passing resemblance to worlds in our Solar system. At least two, HIP 11915 b and Upsilon Andromedae e, are about as heavy as Jupiter and in similar orbits. And HIP 11915 is almost a twin to our sun.
HIP 11915 b might be part of a planetary system that looks like ours. But it’s the only planet we’ve found there so far.
Upsilon Andromedae e is the outermost planet orbiting Upsilon Andromedae A, the brightest of two stars in a widely-separated binary.
Upsilon Andromedae’s planetary system is arguably the closest to a Solar System analog that we’ve found.
Mainly because of its Jupiter analog, and having a set of inner planets: Upsilon Andromedae b, c and d.
Problem is, the inner planets are more massive than Jupiter, almost certainly gas giants.
Upsilon Andromedae d, that’s the one with the cockeyed orbit, spends at least some of its time in the star’s habitable zone.
With roughly 10 times Jupiter’s mass, it almost certainly has no solid surface and isn’t habitable. A rocky moon orbiting Upsilon Andromedea d might support life, and that’s another topic.1 (June 30, 2017)
“Dead stars” is a misnomer, since stars aren’t alive. Unless Olaf Stapledon’s fictional speculation was right.
“…Stars are best regarded as living organisms, but organisms which are physiologically and psychologically of a very peculiar kind. The outer and middle layers of a mature star apparently consist of “tissues” woven of currents of incandescent gases. These gaseous tissues live and maintain the stellar consciousness by intercepting part of the immense flood of energy that wells from the congested and furiously active interior of the star….”
(“Star Maker,” Chapter XI – Stars and Vermin, 3. Stars; Olaf Stapledon (1937), via gutenberg.net.au))
Saying that white dwarfs are “dead stars” makes sense, though, as a metaphor.
And, I think, sounds nicer than calling the things “degenerate dwarfs” and rolls off the tongue — another metaphor — more easily than “stellar core remnant.”
Either way, a white dwarf is what we get after when a small- to medium-size star runs out of fuel. “Small to medium” means between about 0.07 and 10 times as massive as our sun. Any smaller than that, and there isn’t enough internal pressure to have fusion reactions.
William Herschel spotted a white dwarf, 40 Eridani B, in 1783. Three astronomers, Henry Norris Russell, Edward Charles Pickering and Williamina Fleming, confirmed that 40 Eridani B spectral class A — white-hot — in 1910.2
(From Akira Fujii; via Hubble Space Telescope, ESA, NASA; used w/o permission.)
(The Winter Triangle: Procyon, Betelgeuse and Sirius. The tiny green bracket between Procyon and Betelgeuse highlights the Cone Nebula.)
Friedrich Bessel noticed that Procyon and Sirius, the dog star, wobble. In 1844 he said that Procyon and Sirius were double stars, and that their companions hadn’t been spotted.
Alvan Graham Clark found a faint companion for Sirius, “the Pup” — AKA Sirius B— in 1862. John Martin Schaeberle observed Procyon B in 1896. Both were dim, but white-hot.
Cutting a long story short, knowing the distance to Sirius and Procyon told astronomers how far Sirius B and Procyon B were from their brighter companions. That, timing their orbits, and noting how much they wobbled, showed how massive each star is.
Sirius A is twice as massive as our sun, give or take. Sirius B’s mass is around half that. Procyon B is about six tenths as massive as our star.
We’d learned that the more massive stars are, the hotter and brighter they are. Except for Sirius B and Procyon B and other white dwarfs.
Sirius B is about as hot as Sirius A, so every square mile of its surface should be as bright as the bigger star. But Sirius B is something like 10,000 times fainter.
Turns out that Sirius B is only 12,000 kilometers in diameter, 7,300 miles: smaller than Earth.
For main-sequence stars, that’s tiny. For white dwarfs, it’s normal. And means that at least white dwarf may have a planet that’s wider than its star.
By the way — these numbers are all approximate, but pretty close. Astronomers are still fine-tuning what we know about the universe.3
“Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face,
“Many a planet by many a sun may roll with a dust of a vanish’d race….”
(“Vastness,” Tennyson (ca. 1889) via Bartleby.com)
Finding evidence of dust, debris and maybe comets around white dwarfs wasn’t, I suspect, a surprise. Finding remnants of a planetary system so close to the star may have been.
The last I checked, scientists figure that when our sun runs out of hydrogen and becomes a red giant, it’ll be bigger than the current orbits of Mercury, Venus and maybe Earth. When it finally collapses and becomes a white dwarf, the inner planets will be gone.
That didn’t bother me while I was writing “Waiting on a Dead World.”
Maybe our current models aren’t spot-on accurate. Maybe the “golden sun” and the once-habitable world weren’t just like Earth and our sun.
And maybe those who “would not die with their world, and would not leave” moved their planet to a slightly higher orbit.
We can’t do that. Not yet.
But we do have the science and most of the technology to move small asteroids: a couple centuries after developing steam engines and decades after launching our first spaceships. A billion or so years from now, my guess is that we’ll have learned a few new tricks.4
If folks who are a bit like us live on other worlds, maybe they’re at least as smart as we are. Or have been around longer than we have. Or both.
I think the question isn’t whether or not my fictional “waiting minds” would have a planet to wait on. The real question is how I, as a Christian, could have written something like that story. And would admit having written it.
I live in a vast, ancient universe.
We’ve known it was big and old for a long time. Some of us have realized that, big and old as what we see is: it’s not bigger or older than God.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands.”
“Terrible and awesome are you,
stronger than the ancient mountains.”
“All your works give you thanks, LORD and your faithful bless you.
“They speak of the glory of your reign and tell of your mighty works,
“Making known to the sons of men your mighty acts, the majestic glory of your rule.”
“Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
Over the last few centuries, we’ve learned that it’s much bigger and older than some of us thought. I’m okay with that.
I also figure that God is large and in charge, no matter how much we learn.
“Our God is in heaven
and does whatever he wills.”
Others said that we’re in a world that had always been here and always will be.
They couldn’t both be right, assuming that reality is real, so the eternity or transience of the world encouraged ancient philosophical debates.
We’ve learned that Earth had a beginning. And we’re learning about how it’s likely to end.
The bad news is that our sun burns — fuses, actually — hydrogen, and has already expended about half of its reserves.
The good news is that our sun can keep burning hydrogen for something like 5,000,000,000 years. On the other hand, it’ll keep getting brighter and hotter before that happens, by 1% every 100,000,000 years. Give or take a bit.
Assuming that mathematical models we’re using are an approximate match to reality.
That’s not an unreasonable assumption, since we’re finding examples of molecular clouds, protoplanetary disks and stars that match the models.5
Again, assuming our current mathematical models are an approximate match to reality.
If it had been that bright then, Earth’s water would all have been frozen.
But we’ve learned that our planet had liquid water in the Archean. And that the atmosphere probably wasn’t different enough to have kept Earth sufficiently warm.
I could take that inconsistency, demonstrate that hills east and north of Sauk Centre are no more than a few thousand years old, and proclaim the veracity of Bishop Ussher.
But I won’t.
For one thing, I know that my town is on land that was under glaciers several times recently. “Recently” on a geological time scale, that is.
Besides, I figure that what we haven’t learned all there is to know about Earth, the universe and everything in the last century. But we have learned. And now we have more puzzles to solve.
And I’d be astounded if physicists, cosmologists, geologists, and all the other “ists,” were all wrong — and all came up with pretty close to the same ages for Earth and the universe.6
As I’ve said before, I think Pope Leo XIII was right. (December 24, 2019)
“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893))
My guess is that he felt I should pick a side, and either ignore or attack the other.
Given my country’s cultural history, I see his point.
I’m not sure how many folks assume that a person can accept either science or religion: but not both.
Folks who are rabidly religious and warn the rest of us about the Satanic snares of science don’t help. Neither do those who apparently think that religion, particularly Christianity, demands abysmal ignorance.
I’m also not sure how many American Protestants really believe that Catholics can’t be Christians because the pope is the Antichrist. And that’s yet another topic.7
Me? I was a Christian before I became a Catholic, and I still am. (September 22, 2017)
If I’m doing it right, paying attention to this universe will point me toward God.
“For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen.”
Maybe that helps explain why I didn’t and don’t feel guilty about writing a story that depends on what scientists say about stellar evolution.
Then there are the folks in the story who “…left copies of their minds…” and “…discovered that near-immortality was not quite as satisfactory as they had imagined….”
The basic idea, putting someone’s mind into a computer or robot, is a science fiction staple. Examples go back at least to the hapless townspeople in Frederik Pohl’s 1955 “The Tunnel Under the World” and Arnim Zola in Jack Kirby’s 1977 Captain America #208.8
Some stories assume that the process is a transfer: that Our Hero’s or The Villain’s consciousness stop being in one body and end up in another.
Others assume that the memories and personality are copied into another body. Depending on what the author wants, that results in duplicate characters, an Evil Twin or something entirely different.
Writing “Waiting on a Dead World,” I chose the copy option: skipping over the relatively brief interval when the original versions and the copies were both around.
And ignoring the existential angst and animus which might result from two versions of the same individual coexisting.
Neuroimaging is still science fiction. It’s also one of a growing number of new medical diagnostic technologies.
But we still don’t have the tech to scan someone’s brain and upload his or her personality into a computer and/or robot.
That didn’t keep an outfit called Nectome from announcing that, for a fee, they’d pickle your brain: promising to preserve it until someone learned how to revive or rebuild it.9
The pickling process would be fatal. MIT cut ties with the project, and that’s yet again another topic. (May 2, 2018)
Whether or not someone who had his brain pickled is legally dead may be debatable.
My guess is that answers depend on who’s talking, what current laws say, and the odds of ‘revive and rebuild’ tech being developed.
And, as some science fiction authors have realized, folks with such technology would need reasons to revive and rebuild a pickled person. On the ‘up’ side, they could be altruists. Or maybe they ran out of lab rats.
But my “waiting minds” probably weren’t pickled. What I had in mind was more along the lines of Arnim Zola’s approach.
Which brings me to Canto XIII — thirteen, how appropriate 🙂 — of Dante’s Inferno.
“So I put forth my hand a little way,
And broke a branchlet from a thorn-tree tall;
And the trunk cried out: ‘why tear my limbs away?'”
(“The Divine Comedy,” Inferno, Canto XIII, lines 32-33 (ca. 1308-1320) Trans. by Dorothy Sayers (1949))
- A poet who took a wrong turn
- Another poet, who’s leading Dante through Hell
- Pier delle Vigne
- A diplomat who allegedly dissed his boss, killed himself and now looks like a tree
- Nasty critters with wings, claws, human faces and bad attitudes
Canto XIII finds all of the above in the Wood of the Suicides, or Wood of the Self-Murderers. Or, as Dante put it:
“Non era ancor di là Nesso arrivato,
quando noi ci mettemmo per un bosco
che da neun sentiero era segnato….”
(Inferno: Canto 13, Dante, via Dartmouth.edu)
In Dante’s version of Hell, folks who killed themselves experience a unique doom.
When their disembodied souls land in the seventh circle’s second ring, they take root and sprout as trees. They’re currently getting clawed by harpies and bludgeoned by profligates. Then, after the Last Judgment, it gets worse.10
I realize that sounds harsh.
But let’s remember that Dante’s Hell wasn’t supposed to be pleasant. And that his “Divine Comedy” is an epic narrative poem, one of the world’s great literary works: and not on a par with Sacred Scripture.
More accurately, it reflects Catholic beliefs for folks who understand poetry. I’ll get back to that.
Folks whose souls landed in his dreary forest had, in a sense, tried to separate body and soul.
Their punishment, after the Last Judgment, would be to have the bodies they threw away — “spoils” in lines 104 and 105 — hung in their branches.
“We shall take our flight, when all souls take their flight,
to seek our spoils, but not to be rearrayed,
for the spoils of the spoiler cannot be his by right.
“Here shall we drag them, to this gloomy glade;
Here shall they hang, each body evermore
Borne on the thorn of its own self-slaughtering shade.”
(“The Divine Comedy,” Inferno, Canto XIII, lines 103-108 (ca. 1308-1320) Trans. by Dorothy Sayers (1949))
Some folks in Dante’s day didn’t know much about poetry:
” ‘here shall they hang:’ Nowhere, perhaps, does Dante assert more clearly than in this moving an terrible image his conviction of the intimate and unbreakable bond between spirit and flesh. The Suicides willed the death of the flesh, but they cannot be rid of it: their eternity is an eternity of that death. (The absurd charge of heretically denying the resurrection of the body was brought against Dante on the strength of these lines, but only by those to whom the language of poetic imagery is a sealed book.)”
(Dorothy L. Sayers’ footnote to “The Divine Comedy,” Inferno, Canto XIII, line 107; “The Divine Comedy 1 Hell,” Dante Alighieri, Translation by Dorothy L. Sayers (1949); Penguin Classics reprint)
And that’s still another topic.
As a human being, I’m a body and a soul. My material and spiritual parts are designed to work as a single unit. Death separates body and soul, but it’s a temporary situation. They’re reunited before the Last Judgment. (Catechism, 362–365, 990–991, 1005, 1038–1041, 1059)
So, what’s that got to do with suicide?
Backing up a bit, human life is sacred. All human life: yours, mine, everyone’s. It’s a gift from God. (Catechism, 2258)
But I won’t tell anyone that a suicide victim is in Hell: irrevocably damned. I’m not sure why some folks share that despairing thought.
For one thing, despair is a bad idea. (Catechism, 2091)
For another, I’m expected to stay hopeful. And pray:
“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
I lost a dear friend that way, and have felt the impulse occasionally.
In my case, feeling suicidal from time to time shouldn’t be a surprise. Depression is a major risk factor. That’s something I’ll save for another post.
Today, I’ll mention a resource, and leave it at that:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information and local resources.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline
I was going somewhere with all this. Let me think.
A story beginning with a golden sun and curious folks — ending with disillusioned minds waiting to dry-gulch unsuspecting explorers.
Stars, planets, science and metaphors.
Tennyson’s “Vastness” and a rhetorical question.
Faith and reason, science and religion.
Life, death and being human.
But I won’t stop enjoying stories, and on rare occasions writing my own. I don’t see a problem with that.
Learning about this world, using our knowledge to develop new technologies, and using our imaginations is in our nature. Science and technology are part of being human. (Catechism, 35–36, 301, 303–306, 311, 1704, 2293–2296)
We’re also made with a reflection of God’s creativity.
“…To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created….”
I figure that what the Church says about art applies to writing: putting words together and recording the result. It’s one of the many ways a human can reflect God’s image.
And it’s something that I can do well: or mess up.
The problem, he told me, was that the genre kept describing technical problems that humans resolved by using our brains.
Again, he didn’t quite put it that way. He wouldn’t or couldn’t explain how his view lined up with our “dominion” over this world.
I suspect that what bothered him was the genre’s sometimes-overt contempt of faith, religion, and suchlike “superstitions.”
Make that the contempt expressed by some science fiction authors.
Or the organic, at any rate.
“Two guys I would not want along on a camping trip. If H. G. Wells was uncomfortable with nature, Hugo Gernsback had issues with the whole surface of the Earth….
“This illustration reproduced from the magazine SCIENCE AND INVENTION of February 1922, shows a city 10,000 years hence as conceived by Hugo Gernsback…. The city the size of New York will float several miles above the surface of the earth, where the air is cleaner and purer and free from disease carrying bacteria….”
(Floating city, Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy)
I’ll admit to a bias. I like being human. I enjoy being a creature that’s made from the stuff of this world and God’s ‘breath.’ (April 29, 2018)
I also agree with God’s evaluation of this universe: that it’s “very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
Even if I didn’t, my opinion wouldn’t count for much. God’s God, I’m not, and I’m okay with that. (January 14, 2018)
My “Waiting on a Dead World” isn’t, by any reasonable definition, a “religious” story. Not the sort that lends itself to an Anamianiac “Wheel of Morality” analysis.
But I think it’s “inspired by truth and love of beings” — and may have a moral of sorts. Then again, maybe not.
Even so, I’m pretty sure that what the “waiting minds” were planning at the end isn’t right.
I’m not so certain about who or what the copies of long-dead people would be.
Maybe they’re persons with free will. Or maybe they’re merely automata, carrying out programmed functions. Persons or automata, the story ends as they’re about to “impose their will” on folks who flew into their trap.
Maybe the process hijacks the host’s body, leaving the victim’s personality as a passenger but otherwise intact. Or maybe it erases the host’s memories before planting others. Both options are bad news for the victim.
So how come I ended the story by saying that “it was worth the wait” — and didn’t soliloquize on the depravity of the waiting minds?
It’s a matter of personal preference and a point I wanted to make.
I don’t enjoy slogging through preachy passages. I figure others don’t, either. Besides, giving readers credit for having good sense strikes me as reasonable.
And a point I had in mind while writing the story is that having a body and a soul is natural for humans. The same would apply to other folks who are like us, but not human.
I suspect that even a born-again Gnostic disciple of Hugo Gernsback might, after several eons of cleaner and purer unlife, want to smell the roses. Or at least be able to.
- “Happy Death?!”
(April 26, 2020)
(April 29, 2018)
(April 21, 2018)
- “God doesn’t Make Junk”
(January 14, 2018)
- “Happy Halloween!”
(October 31, 2016)
- “How many exoplanets are there?,” FAQ, Exoplanets
- “Out of Whack Planetary System Offers Clues to a Disturbed Past,” Hubble Pages May 24, 2010)
- “NASA Missions Spy First Possible Planet Hugging a Stellar Cinder”
News, Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA (September 16, 2020)
- “‘Weighing’ the Dog Star’s companion”
Science & Exploration, European Space Agency (December 21, 2005)
- Science papers
- “The White Dwarf Initial–Final Mass Relation for Progenitor Stars from 0.85 to 7.5M☉”
Jeffrey D. Cummings, Jason S. Kalirai, P.-E. Tremblay, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, Jieun Choi; The Astrophysical Journal (October 10, 2018) via iop.org
- “The composition of a disrupted extrasolar planetesimal at SDSS J0845+2257 (Ton 345)”
D. J. Wilson, B. T. Gänsicke, D. Koester, O. Toloza, A. F. Pala, E. Breedt, S. G. Parsons; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (August 11, 2015)
- “The White Dwarf Initial–Final Mass Relation for Progenitor Stars from 0.85 to 7.5M☉”
- My viewpoints
- The Archean Eon (4 to 2.5 billion years ago)
Forces of Change, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
- Minnesota River Basin Glaciation
Minnesota River Basin Data Center; Minnesota State University, Mankato
- Appreciating and admiring this universe
- My take
- “Jolo: Bombs at the Cathedral” (January 29, 2019)
- “Robots and Being Catholic” (January 28, 2018)
- “Downloading Consciousness: Related Fiction”
Jordan Inafuku, Katie Lampert, Brad Lawson, Shaun Stehly, Alex Vaccaro; CS181: Computers, Ethics, and Public Policy; Engineering & Computer Science; Stanford University (June 1-2, 2011)
- Picked brains, my perspective