So this morning Mark turns to me in bed and says, ‘Betelgeuse is due to go supernova someday.’ This is at a point where I am barely conscious and when any normal human being would be mumbling incoherently instead of bombarding their partner with astronomical facts.
What I thought he said was that Betelgeuse was due to go supernova on Monday.
‘What time on Monday?’ I asked, thinking it’d be like an eclipse and we could go out and view it.
‘Not Monday! Someday!’ he corrected me. ‘Of course,’ he continued, ‘it might already have happened. It could have happened 600 years ago and we’d only be seeing it now.’
There was a pause while we digested that fact. Or at least, he digested it. I went back to sleep. ‘Just think!’ he enthused, ‘it could have happened while Richard III was being killed on the battlefield!’
Now there’s a thought, and it sent me in two different directions. First, about the speed of light, which totally does my head in when you think of how unbelievably fast light travels and then how long a light-year is and then put the two together and think of 600 Earth Years!!! in terms of light years – you just can’t comprehend it. It’s like that awful sermon on hell in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’. It gave me nightmares when I first read it:
‘– Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it?… And remember, it is an eternity of pain. Even though the pains of hell were not so terrible as they are, yet they would become infinite, as they are destined to last for ever. But while they are everlasting they are at the same time, as you know, intolerably intense, unbearably extensive. To bear even the sting of an insect for all eternity would be a dreadful torment. What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell for ever? For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore… Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high… and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain?… Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended….
One of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words – ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God… ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O, what a dreadful punishment!’
There’s more of this stuff, about thirty pages more, and probably not too dissimilar from the kind of stuff they used to preach to children. Imagine it! You’d be locked up nowadays.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, on Betelgeuse. And, Richard III being the last English King to die in battle, this set me thinking about how it would be a good thing if politicians could actually lead the armies they so glibly send off to fight for their country. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so keen to go to war if they actually had to wage it themselves. Instead of which we have Prince Harry going off to fight in Afghanistan – and of course he won’t be allowed to be in any actual danger so that will make a greater headache for those around him.
OK that’s it now. I’m going back to sleep.