Sungrazer


                     “From what course
    Falls the incredible comet: what cause
    Flings the star babe after the flying star?”

            (George Barker, Calamiterror)

Prologue

If there is to be violence, there must arise [line-break] a victim.  What are called violent phenomena in the Universe have often been, historically, just explosions. The first stars to form after the Big Bang can be assumed never to have hurt anyone: fusing primordial hydrogen to helium, they remained quite innocent of the heavy elements essential to planet-formation, then life. For a star to form, there must be a body of gas and a shock-wave to compress it. The compressed gas will start to collapse under its own gravity, until its core becomes sufficiently dense and hot for nuclear fusion to begin. In the earliest stars, the gas was nearly pure hydrogen, and the shock wave probably an echo of the Big Bang itself. These early stars were heavy and hot, and burned through their hydrogen in a few million years, ending as very energetic, but completely harmless, supernovae, enriching the interstellar medium with slightly heavier elements. The shock-waves from these supernovae triggered the formation of the next generation of stars, each generation adding a greater concentration of progressively heavier elements to the interstellar medium, until planetary systems formed, and with them, living beings capable of experiencing pain.1

It’s tempting to think of the successive generations of stars as literal generations of a kind of alien life. A star is an immensely complex dynamic structure, held up against gravitational collapse by the kinetic energy of the particles heated by nuclear fusion in its core. It shows periodic slight variations in brightness, dimming and recovering in a regular cycle lasting roughly eleven years, but is capable of maintaining an average energy output constant to within a few percent for billions of years at a time.  This vibrant, long-lived source of light and warmth, whose materials are mingled in death with those of other stars to give rise to new stars born in their composite image, seems, at least by analogy with life, alive.  It could even be taken to represent a preferable – and sustainable – model of reproduction without increase, as if one could only reproduce when dead, and then only once, like the phoenix which is itself a symbol of the Sun’s daily rebirth, or like the resting eggs released by dying sponges, whose cells recolonise the bare skeletons of their parents as soon as conditions allow. This would be a mistake.  Dolly the sheep, born at the age of six without benefit of natural selection, did not live a long and happy life.  Only the most massive stars end in supernovae: a smaller star, like the Sun, will give back just one desultory puff of matter to the Universe, the single expanding smoke-ring of a planetary nebula, blown off as the bulk of the star’s mass collapses to become a white dwarf, no longer a star lit by fusion but a slowly-cooling ember of carbon and oxygen, with nothing left to give. While it is true that the heavy elements essential to organic life slowly came to pervade the Universe during its early history, as the Universe ages, more and more of its substance is grinding to a permanent halt in white dwarves and other bodies of degenerate matter, capable neither of supporting organic life nor of seeding the next generation of stars.

The received idea of the Sun as a vast hydrogen bomb is only loosely correct. The reaction in which the Sun generates energy by fusing four hydrogen nuclei into a single helium nucleus is far too slow and inefficient to be of any use on Earth. The energy output at the centre of the Sun is of the order of 300 watts per cubic meter, which is on a par with reptilian metabolism or the rate of heat production in an average compost heap.  The Sun is only hot because it is very, very large. A hydrogen bomb makes its helium by fusing two heavy isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium – the reaction progresses with devastating speed once it gets going, but requires a temperature many times that of the Sun’s core to trigger it. A fission bomb provides the heat.

The core of the Sun is a plasma of hydrogen nuclei (protons) and free electrons, plus a little helium, with a central density of 150 tons per square meter. In the first stage of solar fusion, the high temperature and pressure induce two protons to fuse. The resulting diproton is unstable, and almost invariably and immediately splits back into two protons, curtailing the reaction. Very occasionally, before the diproton has time to split, one of the protons will decay, emitting a positron and a neutrino, and being itself transformed into a neutron. The unstable diproton is thus converted into a stable deuteron, a deuterium nucleus consisting of a fused proton and neutron. On average, a proton in the core of the Sun has to wait 15 to 30 billion years before being incorporated into a deuteron – if the reaction were any faster, the Sun would have burned through its supply of protons long ago. Once a deuteron has formed, it almost immediately fuses with another proton to form a nucleus of helium 3 – on average, this takes only a few seconds to happen.  In the final step of the reaction, two of these helium 3 nuclei fuse to form a single helium 4 nucleus, releasing two energetic protons and a gamma ray photon. The average time taken for a given helium 3 nucleus to be so transformed in the heart of the Sun is of the order of several million years.

15 billion years : a few seconds: several million years. The first figure is three times the current age of the solar system, the last is many times longer than the human species has existed.  In the middle, the length of a breath. The two ratios are as close as we’ll ever get to an arithmetical representation of the phrase “Fuck off”: the Sun gives life, and will take it, and will never know what it has done, or know anything at all, as the bustle of rush-hour Paris is invisible on the long exposures of the earliest photographic plates. The human is erased before it, the whole signature of life is drowned out in the blare it emits on all channels, the Sun which holds 99.97% of the mass of the solar system, next to which the Earth with its creatures can be written off as a measurement error. Work fifty years in the Sun and it will give you skin cancer. Land on the moon during a solar storm and its radiation will kill you in an hour. Stand naked in the Sahara and it will burn your skin until every move you make opens a new crack for your fluids to fly out through into the killing air. I have done none of these things, but I am afraid of the Sun.

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Peter Manson

1A different history of the Universe might take into account the ongoing tendency of parts of the Universe to render themselves in some way discontinuous with their surroundings, as if fleeing inward towards singularity and away from the immensely plural outside. It has been suggested that much of the mass of the early Universe never contributed to the processes of star-formation at all, instead collapsing directly into primordial black holes from the dense and turbulent conditions that immediately followed the Big Bang.  It has further been suggested that many of these primordial black holes would have a finite lifespan: the lighter ones, at least, would slowly lose mass through Hawking Radiation until they were no longer dense enough to qualify as black holes, at which point they would return their remaining mass into congress with the Universe, transformed to energy in a last, perhaps violent, burst of gamma rays. The advent of a form of conscious intelligence which renders its possessor capable of a direct and empathic identification with the idea of God, while making any attempt on the intelligence’s part at identifying with the matter in which the intelligence arose seem immediately obviously silly and wrong, could be taken as the obvious next step for matter, for which no black hole could ever be dark enough.

Peter Manson lives in Glasgow. His books include Adjunct: an Undigest and For the Good of Liars (both from Barque Press) and Between Cup and Lip (Miami University Press, Ohio). Another book, Poems of Frank Rupture, is due soon. Miami UP have also published his book of translations, Stéphane Mallarmé: The Poems in Verse. His work has been anthologised in Identity Parade (Bloodaxe) and Against Expression (Northwestern UP). www.petermanson.com