Dimming to Explode

[Image: Betelgeuse, before dimming; photo by ESO, M. Montargès et al, via NASA.]

There are many interesting things about the dimming of Betelgeuse, a giant star in the constellation of Orion’s belt—perhaps a sign that the star is on the verge of exploding in a giant supernova—including the fact that I remember talking about this very scenario in a poetry workshop more than two decades ago. Here we are, still waiting for that light.

[Image: Betelgeuse, during dimming; photo by ESO, M. Montargès et al, via NASA.]

Betelgeuse, of course, is more than 700 lightyears from Earth, which means that it could very well have exploded centuries ago—it could, technically speaking, not even be there anymore, and wasn’t there for your parents or their parents—but the light from that catastrophe simply hasn’t reached Earth. We are always out of synch with the stars we think we’re seeing, unwitting recipients of dead news from above.

Delayed explosions, stars that are no longer there, constellations made of ghosts: the death–or not—of Betelgeuse is the metaphor that gives on giving, as evidenced by the fact that, even in my own lifetime, the topic has come up once again.

But what’s also so interesting about this sort of news is its juxtaposition between human timescales and astral ones, or human awareness colliding with cosmic time more generally: the implication that the universe is capable of extraordinary events that, in the long-term scheme of things, are actually extraordinarily common, but, from within the limits of a human lifetime, even the lifetime of an entire animal species, appear so rare as perhaps never to be encountered. To never be witnessed or even thought possible. There are things that happen only every 100 million years, every billion years, yet here we are right in the middle of it, unaware of strange gravitational inversions or churning, stroboscopic tides of light, of impossible stars and energy forms stranger than all mythology. Black chemistries in space, awaiting catalysis.

There could be physical processes as regular as clockwork pinging off like fireworks—constant, dead rhythms pulsing through the cosmos every two billion years—but our species will never see, hear, or know, because we simply never overlap.

We inhabit the same universe but not the same time.

Technology, Prehistory, Humanity

[Image: Still from 2001].

For those of you in the Bay Area, the Berkeley Center for New Media is hosting an event on April 3rd that sounds worth checking out. “The Human Computer in the Stone Age: Technology, Prehistory, and the Redefinition of the Human after World War II” is a talk by historian Stefanos Geroulanos. From the event description:

After World War II, new concepts and metaphors of technology helped transform the understanding of human history all the way back to the australopithecines. Using concepts from cybernetics and information theory as much as from ethnology and osteology, scientists and philosophers reorganized the fossil record using a truly global array of fossils, and in the process fundamentally re-conceptualized deep time, nature, and the assemblage that is humanity itself. This paper examines three ways in which technological prehistory, that most distant, speculative, and often just weird field, came to reorganize the ways European and American thinkers and a lay public thought about themselves, their origins, and their future.

This obviously brings to mind the early work of Bernard Stiegler, whose Technics and Time, 1 remains both difficult and worth the read.

In any case, if you happen to attend, let me know how it goes.

(In the unlikely event that you share my taste in electronic music, you might choose to prepare for this lecture by listening to Legowelt’s otherwise unrelated track, “Neolithic Computer.”)

Mass Effect

[Image: The weight of a human being; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Over at the consistently interesting Anthropocene Review, a group of geologists and urbanists have teamed up to calculate the total mass of all technical objects—from handheld gadgetry to agricultural equipment, from domesticated forests to architectural megastructures—produced by contemporary humanity.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Their seemingly impossible goal was to gauge “the scale and extent of the physical technosphere,” where they define the technosphere “as the summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise. It includes active urban, agricultural and marine components, used to sustain energy and material flow for current human life, and a growing residue layer, currently only in small part recycled back into the active component.”

The active technosphere is made up of buildings, roads, energy supply structures, all tools, machines and consumer goods that are currently in use or useable, together with farmlands and managed forests on land, the trawler scours and other excavations of the seafloor in the oceans, and so on. It is highly diverse in structure, with novel inanimate components including new minerals and materials, and a living part that includes crop plants and domesticated animals.

Their “preliminary” calculations of all this suggest a mass of 30 trillion tons.

[Image: Interior of Hughes Aircraft Company cargo building, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The authors immediately put this number into a darkly awe-inspiring perspective:

If assessed on palaeontological criteria, technofossil diversity already exceeds known estimates of biological diversity as measured by richness, far exceeds recognized fossil diversity, and may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history. The rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere and its myriad components underscores the novelty of the current planetary transformation.

This “rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere” means that we are turning the planet into technical objects, dismantling and recombining matter on a planetary scale. The idea that the results of this ongoing experiment “may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history” is sobering, to say the least.

Read the rest of the article over at The Anthropocene Review.

(Originally spotted via Chris Rowan).