View Full Version : Dead stars and literature

Joel Van Valin
2004-Aug-31, 02:49 PM
Hi - I'm a writer crossing over, just briefly here, into the science world. I'm putting together an article on scientific misconceptions in contemporary poetry and fiction. I haven't run across any poems employing the "millions of stars" phrase (astronomers seem to be convinced that every other poem talks about seeing millions of stars, but actually it's thought a terrible cliche). What I do see quite frequently though is a reference to seeing the light of a star that is actually burnt out. Richard Powers, Gilbert Sorrentino and others have used this, and it's a very rich metaphor to be sure, but I'm sceptical as to it's validity. We can only see, what, 2500 stars without binoculars? And stars live a long time. Are there any stars visible to the naked eye that are in fact no longer burning?

Thanks much,
- Joel

2004-Aug-31, 03:01 PM
Hi Joel,

Since the most distant stars visible to the naked eye are all less than about 5000 light years, it is very unlikely that any of them would have ceased shining.



Kaptain K
2004-Aug-31, 06:40 PM
Supernova 1987A was visible to the naked eye. Since a supernova is the death of a star, you could say that, when it was visible, we were seeing a star that had died.

Eta Carina is a variable star that, while not currently visible, was one of the brightest stars in the sky at times in the 19th century. It is about 9,000 light years away. Since it is a very massive (and hence, short lived and unstable) star, there is a chance that it has died, but we haven't seen the supernova yet.

Closer to home, Betelgeuse is the nearest supernova candidate. Some say that it is a 50-50 bet to go supernova in the next 50,000 years. Since it is between 400 and 500 light years away, there is a slight chance that it has gone supernova since the light we see now left it.

2004-Aug-31, 08:05 PM
Welcome to the board Joel. :)

I've heard varying numbers but I believe that with clear dark skies a person could see 5000-8000 stars. Different sources say different things.

I agree with the others that since some stars are so far away they could have "burnt out" but we wouldn't know until the light from the death of the star (such as a supernova) reaches us.

Grand Vizier
2004-Aug-31, 08:20 PM
[...]We can only see, what, 2500 stars without binoculars? And stars live a long time. Are there any stars visible to the naked eye that are in fact no longer burning?

Thanks much,
- Joel

That's 2,500 -3,000 at any one time. Of course there's always a hemisphere of the sky you can't see, below the horizon, so you need to double that.

I'm inclined to be forgiving towards poets, because it is a strikingly poetic thought, and not impossible - in a sense (see below), though we have no good naked-eye candidates, as others have said.

What gets me, and what I have to correct, is when a friend points to an arbitrary star in the sky and declares that it is so many million light years away, and it is likely dead by now. Can't resist saying, for example: 'No, that's Sirius, you're only seeing it as it was 9 years ago'. There is something about large numbers that leads people to get carried away.

Incidentally, the 'dead star' thing is even harder to sustain. Stars are very hard to kill. Even supernovas leave neutron star remnants that are highly energetic. Stars like the Sun will, once they go through their final evolution, leave dim white dwarfs - but these are also quite energetic, with high surface temperatures. They look dim because they have small diameters. But they have enormously long lifetimes.

White dwarfs gradually simmer down to black dwarfs, which would be truly dead. But the problem is that the universe is not reckoned to be old enough for this to have happened anywhere yet.

So, unless, you count black holes as stars (and are even they 'dead'?), there are not likely to be any truly dead stars at all in the contemporary universe. It is still a melancholic vision, worthy of poets, to contemplate a very far future where all is dead and still, however.

Joel Van Valin
2004-Sep-01, 10:19 PM
Thanks all for your very informative replies. Yes I suppose supernovas would be the exception (though not technically "dead" of course).

I'm still waiting for a poem that mentions the theorized black hole at the center of the Milky Way (killer metaphor there!) ... scientific ideas take a long time to seep into the literary world.

- Joel

Grand Vizier
2004-Sep-01, 10:38 PM
They get there in the end - and this stands up well, given it was 1963 and the consensus was that neutrinos had no mass...

Cosmic Gall by John Updike (1963)

Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed - you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

[edited for comment on mass]

Joel Van Valin
2004-Sep-03, 11:10 PM
Yea, Updike is an exception. He was able to portray a biochemist in his novel Couples, who actually had a convincing research topic (chemical reactions of photosynthesis). Of course the scientist was a cold-hearted ******* of a character, but he had his facts right.

2004-Sep-07, 07:14 AM
I'm still waiting for a poem that mentions the theorized black hole at the center of the Milky Way (killer metaphor there!) ... scientific ideas take a long time to seep into the literary world.

- Joel

I actually just bought a book today (Art & Physics by Leonard Shlain) that argues just the opposite - that the arts actually put forth ideas that then seep into science. (e.g. Einstein being influenced by Doestoyefsky (sp?) )

And there are papers out there by Peter Ussher on Copernicanism in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Joel Van Valin
2004-Sep-07, 02:49 PM
I'm sure scientists are influenced and inspired by any number of things, literature included. Neither Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare produced any original scientific idea, that I know of, or had much interest in science, but part of the delight of literature is that it can be a springboard for new ways of thinking.

I would say the other direction of influcence though - the influence of science on literature - can only be seen occasionally and usually years later. For instance when John Fowles put multiple endings to The French Lieutenant's Woman, he was supposidly influenced by the Uncertainty Principle (writers love Heisenberg). But he wrote the novel in what? 1970? Thomans Mann wrote about x-rays in The Magic Mountain, which is fairly soon after they were introduced, but you can read the collected works of most writers, Byron for instance, and find almost no trace of the scientific progress that was happening at the time. The exception being science fiction writers.

Speaking of Einstein though - there's a splendid play, written by Steve Martin, called "Picasso at the Lapin Agile", about a fictional meeting between Einstein and Picasso in a Parisian cafe in 1904, and the exchange of ideas between the father of relativity and modern art.

- Joel