[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.