Kage Baker, unlike many science fiction writers, was not herself a science person. Unless you count some of the “softer” sciences (dismissively so-named by physicists) like sociology and cultural anthropology – those she was intensely interested in, and read in constantly throughout her life. It is famously aphorized that Behaviour Doesn’t Fossilize – but Kage maintained that wasn’t true. Human civilization carries as much half-fossilized relics from its past as our crowded cellular nuclei do. Folklore alone is the Burgess Shale of behaviour.
But Kage was aware she needed to know what was sharpening the cutting edges, and besides: new findings in anything are fascinating. Even if you don’t quite comprehend them, there is a glitter and a glamour to the ideas that the Milky Way may be surrounded by invisible satellite galaxies of dark matter. Or that there are close to two dozen elements that are only produced artificially, and then only for a few seconds – faerie metals. Or that the upper reach of human life span appears to be the nonsensical age of 116. Or that the surface of the Moon smells like gunpowder. One’s life does not depend on knowing this stuff. But it gives depth and elegance to the entire affair.
Kage did dedicated research when she was working on a specific idea: she believed she ought to know How Things Work if she was going to write about them. When she couldn’t devise active participation herself (lots of odd and interesting kitchen experiments there …) she sought out the people who did do them; knowing people in groups that ranged from Roman medical re-creation to the Mars Society helped. Kage believed in hands-on research, and when her own hands didn’t reach, she sought out people with bigger hands.
Kage cruised several science news sites daily, to see what was exciting whom. And she employed a clip service – me, whose job it was to read magazines and journals and report on interesting developments. It was a pleasant compromise, because I would have 1) been reading these things anyway; and 2) reading my favourite bits out loud and making Kage crazy. This way it was useful. And some magazine subscriptions became tax deductions. (Not the knitting mags, alas, but Scientific American qualified.)
Presently, the red giant star Betelgeuse might be upon point of going supernova. The readings of its radiation output indicate that its mass is shrinking steadily and (in stellar terms) rapidly. This would have fascinated and horrified Kage. Fascinated, because, wow, a freaking supernova! Horrified, because Betelgeuse is the right shoulder of Orion, a constellation Kage loved. (Also, it is the home of Zaphod Beeblebrox, though one presumes that if Betelgeuse is indeed going supernova, that slippery gentleman has scarpered.)
This is tremendously exciting for astronomers – we haven’t had a close-to view of a nova in centuries, and Betelgeuse looks fair to be a Big Deal. It’s relatively close – 600 llight years away – and it’s a ginormous star: a Super Mega Killer Roman Candle firework of a star. It may well be visible to the naked eye. And while it’s close enough to be observable, it is not so close as to be dangerous to us. Ringside seat at Safe and Sane Supernova!
However, the tantalizing chance that it could mean the doom of mankind has the fringe press and Apocalypse fans in a frenzy. Except it couldn’t, but never mind – ignoring all the actual data, what one can draw from the astronomy reports is that Betelgeuse is BIG (well, our sun is pretty wimpy) and CLOSE (relatively. In a galaxy 100,000 light years across, 600 is just the next block) and SOON TO EXPLODE (also relative. Might be tonight, might be in a thousand years). Man, what if it goes up in 2012!?!?! This is the current highly uninformed, most hysterical and loudest speculation.
What if Betelgeuse does become a visible supernova in 2012? Well, it’ll be a huge coincidence and we’ll be pretty lucky. Those of us alive now will get to see a real supernova. The information gathered will be enormous. Orion will be left a bit of a gimp, of course, but there’s drama in that, too.
Kage would have been fascinated even more by the Doomsday frenzy than an incipient supernova. She observed often that there is a wide-spread human longing for the end of the world – to see God, to get revenge on the evildoers, to purge the planet, to clear your credit card debt … lots of reasons, and lots of people sort of sneakily like the idea. She thought the attitude was cowardly, and that those who played into it – largely politicians, religious fundamentalists, and skunks of a similar stripe – were despicable. It was one of the aspects of human nature that made her shake her head in amazement and despair.
What would have occurred to Kage first and foremost, though, was that the entire frenzy – whether enthused or terrified – was a tempest in a tea pot. Much ado about – not nothing, but the wrong thing; and certainly a lot of yelling and shaking spears at a shadow in the sky that is not real. Because Betelgeuese is big, and is close, but the information we are getting from its light is old, stale news. If it is destined to be a supernova, it has almost certainly already exploded. We’re just waiting for the confirmation.
Nice little paradox in time, there. Just the sort of thing Kage loved.