The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Going Out With Not So Much As A Whimper…

Posted by BigWords on February 8, 2011

One of the perennial dangers of reading (and clicking links on) a science forum is the way ideas seen to get conflated into larger and more depressing ways for the planet to die. Yeah, this is another one of my increasingly regular posts which seem to appear out of left-field. Having managed to avoid the subject of irrevocable planetary destruction for quite some time, I may as well indulge myself while these thoughts are fresh – and before it actually happens, which would be an annoyance of incredible proportions. So… Gamma ray bursts. If you aren’t aware of the phenomenon, then you might want to take a look at the sciencey stuff behind them. They appeal to me in a way which even pole shift hypothesis can’t match. It’s a matter of scope and inevitability which marks out gamma ray bursts as a very special way for us to meet our end, especially as the images which have been passed around are so cool – and resemble (in many ways) the visuals of black holes, which you can draw your own conclusions from…

Supervolcanoes, and other planetary disasters, are scary enough, but they don’t have the completely random and planet-wide effects to make people think of just how fragile our planet really is. Gamma bursts from dying stars however… Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff right there. That’s the kind of mind-crushing, galactic threat so large as to make people turn to their gods and start crying. I’m not going to pretend that the use of such a thing in a work of fiction hasn’t crossed my mind in the past, but it is only after reading all the theories and speculation about these mysterious blasts of power that I have, for the first time in ages, realized that some scientists don’t go far enough in their predictions. That’s not really their job though… It’s the job of writers and imagineers (shut up, it is too a word) to come up with the more outlandish theories and speculation. When scientists get to attempting the art of spinning out disaster scenarios, they get (most of the time) too much science and not enough explosions into their presentation, so that the folks who would enjoy the spitballing of ideas the most are made to feel left out of the party. I’m slightly less rigid about the definition of “probable” and “likely” than most scientists, so even though there are extreme odds against an event happening I never seem to be able to say the word impossible.

My thoughts were piqued by talk of volcanoes, and (yes) supervolcanoes, and it occurred to me that there might be more than a passing use for the comparison, as both are limited in their destructive capabilities – volcanoes by their mass and force of ejection, and gamma ray bursts by the relative position of their poles in relation to the rest of the galaxy. Supervolcanoes, unlike reg’lar volcanoes, are awesome in their destructive tendencies. So what, if anything, would cause a gamma ray burst to take on an even more destructive aspect? Yeah, these are the things which occupy my time when I should be writing, and I know I shouldn’t be playing with thoughts of planetary destruction, but I can’t help it. The image of a ray of blinding white light hitting the surface of the Earth and killing every living thing on the surface is too close to the imagery of classic SF films’ destructor rays and other superweapons to be mere coincidence. You didn’t come here for the slightly creepy admiration I have for them, so moving swiftly on…

The mix-and-match disaster scenarios which regularly appear in novels and films come out of people first asking “what if”, then expanding on the basic idea – taking gamma ray bursts and making them worse (a feat which some would say improbable) isn’t all that hard. Just add a source of massive gravity, for starters, then you get something approaching interesting. I use the term interesting, because using “potentially underwear-soiling terrifying” would merely scare people. It’s also a really cool thought, that somewhere – far from Earth, hopefully – a ball of light is spitting out bright death rays whilst spinning wildly, hitting multiple planets in it’s roaring rampage of destruction. When I thought of this image, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the balls which used to hang in clubs in the seventies… Which made me giggle for a moment before I realized such an event wouldn’t be in the slightest bit funny if it happened to have our little planet in its’ sights. The Super-Seventies Disco Ball Of Doom scenario (I thought it up, so I get to name it) would be as terrifying as it is an awesome sight to behold – as long as you don’t get too close…

The other thing… I guess this isn’t as much a theoretical possibility as it is a reeeally long shot (the odds of which I refuse to hazard a guess at), and – as such – should be shunted off into its’ own category. Whenever there is the possibility of one event (in this case the gamma burst, which is unlikely an event in and of itself), there exists possibilities which confound our rational belief in events going as expected. The unexplained is part of the fabric of science. The unexplained is integral to the motion of people wondering just what they have witnessed, and is the spur upon which further research is implemented. It is essential to our understanding of the universe around us. Could some unexplained energy out there have the ability to screw up a star’s magnetic poles? Yeah. It isn’t outside of the realms of science. It wasn’t that much of a mental stretch going from the The Super-Seventies Disco Ball Of Doom to an even more dramatic scenario – inspired as much by watching Star Wars as it was reading any textbook on interstellar phenomenon, but that’s not important…

The Big Kaplooey Destroy All Life Event is the The Super-Seventies Disco Ball Of Doom times infinity. It would necessitate some very strange stellar mechanics, but if a star was so severely compromised (and in the final stages of a star’s existence there are a lot of things which are not entirely understood), then it is just inside the line of credibility that a mass-expulsion of gamma energy could be emitted from the entire surface of the star. It’s probably not going to be something people are looking for, nor something any scientist ever wants to see, as witnessing such an outpouring of devastating energy would most likely shake them to the core, but it should be completely ruled out. In the billions of years the universe has existed (and the universe before this, if researchers are to be believed) there might possibly have been at least one event which corresponds to something of this magnitude of destruction. And if there is such an event discovered by mainstream science, I want you to remember that I named it here first. The Big Kaplooey Destroy All Life Event. That’s so what it’s gonna be called.

To think that I could have been editing, and instead I spent a valuable half-hour putting these strange thoughts together…

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