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Look up to the Sky

March 27, 2010

Tonight is a clear night.

I look up through the chilly air and see on Orion’s right shoulder the star we call Betelgeuse. Tonight it shimmers, to my eye it is almost as bright as Mars. It is sobering to remember that the Roman god of war whom the red planet is named after was originally a god of fertility and vegetation before Rome’s expanding empire took up the sword.

Betelgeuse though is 640 light years away.

It looks beautiful.

It is also big.

Very big.

If Betelgeuse was in the position of our Sun its size would easily engulf both Earth and Mars.

When the light that is hitting my retina tonight first started its journey from Betelgeuse Edward III was on the throne of England and the Hundred Years’ War was being played out with France. The Black Death had reduced the world’s population to about 370 million. The photons shooting across the near emptiness of space in my direction would be a quarter of the way along their journey before Europe’s population recovered.

At the moment that they leaked off the surface of Betelgeuse, Chaucer, who had also fought in France, had yet to start work on The Canterbury Tales. In this same year Emperor Huizong of Yuan’s eyes closed for the last time. In the last years of his reign he had seen his Mongol Empire lose control of China to the Ming Dynasty, essentially ending an Empire that was once larger than that of Rome and the Muslim Caliphate combined.

When the light from Betelgeuse was halfway along its journey to the rods and cones waiting at the back of my eye, humans in Teignmouth, Devon witnessed the last ever French attack on England. Light from Jupiter hits the retina of Giovanni Domenico Cassini and he becomes the first human to record the differential rotation of the gas giant’s atmosphere. The eyes of William Ball closed for the last time in this year. The Royal Society’s first Treasurer and a Founding Fellow is later honoured when a 41 km crater on the moon is named after him. 35 orbits of the Earth around the Sun before his death he had established the rotation rate of the planet Saturn.

When the photons that started in the roiling belly of Betelgeuse (it takes on average perhaps 20,000 years for an individual photon to escape a star, some may have been trapped there for billions of years) reach the three-quarter mark of their journey the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress. This Act required human beings to return to other human beings still other human beings who themselves felt that perhaps, they shouldn’t be considered property and had thus strained, struggled and escaped. The absurdity of this Act helped to create the Emancipation Proclamation twelve years later.

The proclamation does not solve all of humanity’s problems but…

The same year sees the final payment made to the British Government after the Treaty of Amritsar. This means the human beings in Kashmir are now controlled by a different set of human beings from before. We don’t call it slavery though, we call it begar.

This treaty does not cause all of humanities problems but…

It is a clear night. It is cold. The light from Betelgeuse passes as information along my optic nerve and then to the visual cortex at the back of my brain.

The light from Betelgeuse looks beautiful to me.

There are seven ongoing conflicts in the world today that cause a thousand or more deaths a year. They are in India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico and Sudan.

Today a treaty snappily titled Measures to Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms was agreed by the United States and Russia. If ratified there will be 25% and 30% cuts in nuclear warheads respectively.  The treaty does not solve one percent of humanity’s problems but …

Today it was announced that China had invested US$34.6 bn in clean energy over the last year. This does not solve one percent of humanity’s problems but …

At some point in the next thousand years or so human eyes will watch Betelgeuse die.


Perhaps some 639 years and 350-odd days ago Betelgeuse went supernova. Maybe tomorrow the 6,810,899,169 or so pairs of human eyes on Planet Earth will be able to see Betelgeuse shining in the afternoon sky as bright as a crescent moon.

It will outshine Mars.

Or perhaps, as you read these words right now, Betelgeuse has only just gone supernova. If so, we will not know for another 640 years.  In 640 years time I imagine that the gods of war we sacrifice ourselves to will no longer exist on Earth. If I believed that wishing on a star could have any effect then I would wish that, whatever form the final conflict on Earth takes, it will not be the one that closes all of our eyes.

Wishing, however, solves nothing.

Open your eyes.

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